Celebrating the Botanics

5 08 2015

In a Singapore caught up in the frenzy of celebrating the abandonment of the past, being given an opportunity to celebrate a piece of our pre-independent history, the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), is a welcome distraction. The 74 hectare green space, recently inscribed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one that connects the generations as a community space, a constant in a Singapore in which change seems to be the only other constant, for which alone it deserves to be celebrated.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The bandstand and its iconic gazebo, one of several conserved sites within the SBG.

The inscription into the UNESCO list gives us a lot more reason to celebrate. The Gardens has long played a role not just as a community space, but as a centre for botanical research, it has made immense contributions even to Singapore’s (and Malaya’s) early economy. The rise of rubber as an economic crop and the spread of rubber plantations, once dominant across our island’s rural areas, across much of Malaya, owes much to the work carried out in the SBG and Henry Ridley, the SBG’s first scientific director. The rural landscape while now conquered by the sea of concrete, owes much of its green colouring, a product of the efforts to transform Singapore into a Garden City, also to the SBG.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Henry Ridley and his work on rubber is remembered in the SBG Heritage Centre.

Green is a colour that paints the Botanics is beautifully. Home to numerous heritage trees, it also is a showcase of more than 10,000 tropical plants. Offers an escape many seek from the insanity and clutter of the urban world, its wide open lawns provide our young with the space necessary to learn that life is not just about virtual play. The same lawns have given great service to society. One, was to provide the space for the first Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat or People’s Variety Show that drew a crowd of 22,000. The shows were an initiative to help unify Singaporeans in the early days of full self-government and started in 1959. 

Space to run free.

Space to run free.

One of several heritage trees.

One of several heritage trees.

My first acquaintance with the Gardens came about in my earliest of years. On the evidence of my childhood albums and the long lasting fascination I had with sundials and black swans, many of my early interactions with the SBG would have taken place in the Tanglin Core, the oldest part of the gardens. This part of the Gardens is where many of its heritage sites are to be found, including Singapore’s the first ornamental body of water, Swan Lake, which was completed in 1866. Several of the Gardens’ icons can be found close to the lake such as the famous tembusu tree that has found its way to the back of our five-dollar note, the Bandstand – a popular spot for wedding photographs to be taken at, and Swan Lake Gazebo. The cast iron gazebo harks back to a forgotten age and is one that graced the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief’s one time residence (at old Admiralty House on Grange Road, which was demolished in the 1960s to allow the 2nd Raffles Institution campus to be built).

My introduction to the sundial at the Botanical Gardens in 1966.

When I first met the acquaintance of the sundial.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

The iconic tembusu tree attracts large crowds.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Dynamic supports developed by ST Kinetics now support the outstretched branch of the tembusu on which many previously posed for photographs.

Swan Lake, Singapore's first ornamental lake.

Swan Lake, Singapore’s first ornamental lake.

One of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A bamboo clump – one of the tiniest species of bats, the bamboo bat, can be found roosting in the Gardens.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

A wider view of Swan Lake.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The Bandstand is a popular spot for wedding photography.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

The cast iron Victorian Swan Lake Gazebo, previously of Old Admiralty House at Grange Road.

Also within the Tanglin Core, is an old building that offers cool relief, especially on a hot day, Holttum Hall. Built in 1920, the two storey bungalow, one of four conserved bungalows found on the site (more information on which can be found at the Urban Redevelopment Authorty (URA) Conservation Portal), now houses the SBG Heritage Museum.  The hall is close to the Botany Centre – one of the visitor gateways into the Gardens and holds a wealth of information in its interactive and multimedia exhibits on the work that went on in the gardens and its role in the proliferation of rubber as a crop.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

The SBG Heritage Centre in Holttum Hall.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

An exhibit showing the herringbone pattern developed by Ridley to tap rubber.

One of the things I was surprised to learn about the SBG, was that what is thought to be the oldest and largest orchid plant in the world, can be found on its grounds. The plant, a clump of tiger orchid, wears a rather undignified appearance. Measuring some 5 metres in diameter, it is thought to be the one planted in 1861 by Lawrence Niven, the SBG’s first superintendent who is credited with its development, just two years after the Gardens was established.

The oldest orchid?

The oldest orchid?

Flowers belonging to the world's oldest orchid plant.

Flowers belonging to the world’s oldest orchid plant.

Another interesting site is at Plant House. Here, arrows can be found marked into several of the red bricks of its steps, the significance of which only came to light in 1995, when a group of former prisoners of war visiting from Australia told of how the arrows got on the bricks. Apparently the arrows, a symbol then commonly used to mark government property, were marked by the POWs involved, as an act of defiance. More on this story (and also of Lawrence Niven) can be found here.

The steps of plant house.

The steps of plant house.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps - with arrows seen on some of them.

A close-up of the bricks used to make the steps – with arrows seen on some of them.

Adjoining the Tanglin Core and to its north is the Central Core. Here, laid out over the highest point of the grounds, one finds the National Orchid Garden. Opened by Singapore’s first prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1995, the National Orchid Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary on 20 October.  In it, the visitor will find over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids on display, making it an especially colourful site. Nestled in the midst all that colour is is another of the SBG’s four conserved bungalows, Burkill Hall. A former plantation owner’s bungalow built in 1886, it now is rented out as an event venue. The National Orchid Garden is also where the most vandalised tree in Botanics can be found. As part of the celebration of its 20th anniversary, SG50 and SBG’s UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription, admission into the National Orchid Garden will be free until the 31st of August for all resident in Singapore (this includes Singapore citizens, permanent residents and others residing in Singapore such as EP, Work Permit and Dependent Pass holders).

Burkill Hall.

Burkill Hall.

The most vandalised tree.

The most vandalised tree.

A close-up of it.

A close-up of it.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

The National Orchid Garden is a riot of colour with some 1000 species of orchids on display.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

SBG Director Dr Nigel Taylor with National Orchid Garden nursery manager David Lim.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

The National Orchid Garden seen through the porch of Burkill Hall.

It seems these days that no attraction in Singapore is compelete without something to tempt the palate. The SBG these days certainly isn’t short of this with its range of gastronomical delights found in the abundance of the food and beverage outlets now found in the Gardens. One of these outlets can be found close to the National Orchid Garden, set in the tranquility of the Ginger Garden. This, the ginger themed restaurant Halia at Singapore Botanic Gardens, seems to have been caught up in the celebratory mood and has come up with a special SG50 menu of orchid inspired desserts and beverages. Orchid tea blends from the SBG Gardens Shop feature in the beverages, two cocktails, Yam Seng and 1965, and a mocktail, Singapore Jubilee.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

A ginger plant inspired mural at the Ginger Garden.

Halia at SBG.

Halia at SBG.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

Ginger and Gold at Halia.

White and Lapis.

White and Lapis.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

SG50 Cocktails at Halia.

Nassim Gate Visitor Centre, which lies northeast of the Ginger Garden, are where another two F&B outlets can be found. One, the Casa Verde, which touts itself as a “casual trattoria”, offers casual dining. On its menu over the National Day period (from 3rd to 17th August 2015, served from 12pm to 2.45pm but not on weekends and public holidays), several local favourites curated by its chef Danny Tan, can be selected. The dishes, Singapore Laksa, Mee Siam, Mee Rebus, and Char Kway Teow, are priced reasonably and have a soft drink thrown in. Diners at the tratorria can also look forward to its National Day celebration when its fresh oven baked pizzas come with a 50% discount on 9 August from 11.30 am to 5.45 pm. Casa Verde will also run a Kids Pizza Making workshop on 7 August at 2 pm as part of the celebration.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

Offerings at Casa Verde for the National Day period.

A stone’s throw away from the “green house”, we find Corner House, set in a beautifully restored conserved two-storey bungalow, E J H Corner House. The fine-dining restaurant offers the Gastro-Botanica creations of Chef Jason Tan and to mark the country’s 5oth birthday and the restaurant’s first anniversary, Chef Tan is presenting his Celebratory Discovery Menu (available until 16 August 2015 – for dinner only). The menu takes diners on an eight course journey that traces the various stages in the development of Singapore’s culinary scene. Each course reinterprets the chef’s favourite dishes along that journey, which I must say is pretty impressively on the basis of two items on the menu I got to have a taste of, one of which the Remembering Oyster Omelette. That does have me recall the flavour of the real hawker dish, and one with which I found myself transported back at first bite to that car park opposite Cold Storage that became known as Gluttons’ Square.

Corner House.

Corner House – The Verandah.

The Reading Room.

The Reading Room.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

The Claret Corner.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Remembering Oyster Omelette.

Chef Jason Tan.

Chef Jason Tan.

My Corner of the World - Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

My Corner of the World – Durian Bread and Butter Pudding.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

Delightful salted egg macarons served after each meal.

For those for whom only the real hawker fare will complete an outing to Botanics, one can, rather surprisingly, find a food court on the grounds of the SBG, Food Canopy. While it may not offer the same fare as the food centre at Taman Serasi many from my generation miss, the food court, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Bukit Timah Core (close to the MOE  Co-Curricular Activities Branch, CCAB), offers a choice of hawker fare with its seven stalls. One of these, is the Di Wei Teo Chew Restaurant, which offers Teochew classics such as cold crab, chye poh kway teow, pan-fried pomfret, yam rings and Teochew yam strips.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

Cold crab and chye poh kway teow.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

For the those with a sweet tooth, Teochew yam strips.

Besides the food on offer, visitors to the SBG over the so-named Jubilee Weekend (7 to 9 August 2015), will find a host of activities to celebrate independent Singapore’s 5oth anniversary, including a carnival at the Bandstand and Orchid Plaza with activities and food offerings that include some that bring back the good old days.  There will also be a reenactment of the People’s Variety Show, movie screenings and concerts to look forward to. The SBG’s Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage will, on the evening of 9 August, provide an alternative site to catch a live-screening of the National Day Parade from. More information on the activities over the weekend can be found at the NParks SBG Jubilee Weekend page.

The Gardens Shop.

Offerings at the Gardens Shop – no visit is complete without dropping by.





The glow in the park

12 05 2015

The quiet green surroundings of Fort Canning Hill provides the setting for the Pinacothèque de Paris’ home away from home, in a building whose best features the museum seems to have brought out, especially with its nighttime illuminations. The rather majestic looking building, looking resplendent after a huge makeover, dates back to 1926, beginning its life as a barracks block of the Malaya Command Headquarters. The Malaya Command HQ occupied a large part of the grounds of a mid-18oos British fortification, of which part of the wall and a gate, the Fort Gate, remains. Named after Lord Canning, the Governor-General and Viceroy of British India at that time, the fort was also what gave the hill its modern name.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

I first got to know the three storey building that is now the Pinacothèque in my days of youthful adventure when the hill was a draw for as much for its seclusion of the hill, as it was for its mystery. Known also as Bukit Larangan, the Forbidden Hill, it was so named as it was the abode of the ancient kings both in life and in the afterlife. The dark and uncertain slopes, desecrated by the ornaments of the new order the most noticeable of which were the reminders of Singapore’s first Christian burial ground, seemed more forbidding  then than forbidden.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

The monuments on the hill to the garrison no one imagined could be defeated, were less forbidding. In former barracks block, then converted into the “world’s largest squash centre”, Singapore Squash Centre, one was never without company. Established in 1977 when the game of squash rackets was at the peak of its popularity in Singapore, the centre boasted of 25 courts and as a facility for the game, was well used up until the 1980s. Unfortunately, the good times were to be brought to an end at the end of the 1980s. Plans were announced in 1985 to revamp Fort Canning Hill into a focal point for cultural and recreational activities in the city, with the barracks block serving as its hub. Following the expiration of the centre’s lease for the building in 1987, the building was renovated and unveiled as the Fort Canning Centre in 1991 into which arts related tenants such dance studios and theatre groups moved.

The building in the 1980s (National Archives of Singapore).

Overlooking Fort Canning Green, the site of the former Christian cemetery, the Pinacothèque de Paris, which opens its doors on 30 May 2015, adds not just a stunning backdrop to the now open-air concert venue, but also provides a good reason to head up a hill on whose slopes much of our early history was written.





A paddle through the Jalan Gemala Nature Area

15 12 2014

The Jalan Gemala area at Lim Chu Kang is as remote and wild as it can possibly get on the island of Singapore. Set along the banks of the upper reaches of the Sungei Kranji, once a tidal river lined with rich mangrove forests up to the extent of the tidal influence,  it finds itself at the edge of a reservoir of freshwater, created by the damming of the mouth of the Kranji River.JeromeLim-0667 2

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The river itself had in the past been one that served as a communication link, bringing in settlement to an area where early gambler plantations had been established. An area of mangroves – the river was lined with the watery forests up to the limits of the tidal influence, it now supports an area of freshwater marshes, wet grasslands and secondary woodland that is teeming with bird, plant and insect life – it is thought to support a colony of fireflies.

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The area was one of two identified in the 2013 Land Use Plan and subsequently the URA Master Plan for conservation as Nature Areas – the other being Pulau Unum and Beting Bronok.  The Land Use Plan has this to say about the area:

Jalan Gemala at Lim Chu Kang has varied habitats such as wet grassland, freshwater marshes as well as tall secondary woodland and freshwater reservoir that are near the area. Its addition as a nature area is significant given its rich wet grassland, with two rare plants (Leea angulata and Cayratia trifolia) being sighted. The inclusion of Jalan Gemala will also help secure the sustainability of the existing Kranji Marshes site at Neo Tiew Lane. The Pink-necked Green Pigeons and Mallotus paniculatus, a quick growing shrub that provides food for small birds are some wildlife species that can be found here.

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Based on information provided by the Nature Society (Singapore) the Jalan Gemala Nature Area is spread along a length of 4 to 5 kilometres and includes secondary forest, grassland and wetland running along the Kangkar inlet into Kranji Reservoir and is adjacent to Kranji Marsh.

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A blue-tailed bee eater in flight

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A rare blue-eared kingfisher


Works being currently bing carried out by NParks

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Colourful and secret gardens by the bay

18 08 2014

Back for a fifth time, the biennial Singapore Garden Festival (SGF), as on previous occasions, promises visitors a visual feast of beautifully conceived gardens as well as a kaleidoscope of colour. Organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) and Gardens by the Bay (where it is being held for the very first time), the nine-day SGF 2014 (held from 16 to 24 August) sees the introduction of a competitive Floral Table Series and a showcase of Miniature Garden Designs in addition to the mix of designer and fantasy gardens.

The Gardens by the Bay provides the setting for this year's SGF.

The Gardens by the Bay provides the setting for this year’s SGF.

The fantsay world of Tartarus by James Basson of Monaco.

The fantsay world of Tartarus by James Basson of Monaco.

The Fantasy and Landscape Show Gardens, with 7 and 8 exhibits respectively this year, are always a treat at SGF. This year’s location provides a somewhat more natural setting for the Landscape Show Gardens which are on display in the open at The Meadow. Among the exhibits in these two categories, I especially enjoyed Tartarus, a Fantasy Garden by Monaco’s James Basson, that has the effect of takes one right into the fantasy world of a secret forest.

Another secret garden - Winter Illusion by Kate Hiller and Dan Rutherford of New Zealand.

A peek into another secret garden – Winter Illusion by Kate Hiller and Dan Rutherford of New Zealand.

From the Landscape Show Garden category.

Out in the open at The Meadow – one from the Landscape Show Garden category.

The bulk of the displays are at The Meadow.

The bulk of the displays are at The Meadow.

Beside the Fantasy and Landscape Show Gardens, the displays at The Meadow, where the main part of SGF is being held at, include the always delightful Balcony Gardens, 8 of which are on display, Floral Windows to the World, Celebrations! Floral Table Series, the Minature Garden Displays, the Community in Bloom displays and a Learning Garden.

A Balcony Garden.

A Balcony Garden.

From the Community in Bloom displays.

From the Community in Bloom displays.

The Learning Garden.

The Learning Garden.

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A Miniature Garden display.

A Miniature Garden display.

The Ice Queen's Spring Breath (Floral Windows into the World).

The Ice Queen’s Spring Breath (Floral Windows to the World).

Passion (Floral Windows into the World).

Passion (Floral Windows to the World).

Dining in Mangrove (Celebrations! Floral Table Series).

Dining in Mangrove (Celebrations! Floral Table Series).

Another from Celebrations! Floral Table Series.

Another from Celebrations! Floral Table Series.

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Also to look out for this SGF, is the Orchid Extravaganza at the Flower Dome. The display, designed by award-winning landscape architect Jun-ichi Inada, features some 18,000 plants and more than 40 orchid species and hybrids that includes a 10 metre Orchid Kaleidoscope. Also at the Orchid Extravaganza is a gallery of competition orchids put on show by the Orchid Society of South East Asia. Orchid Extravaganza, which opened with SGF 2014, will be on display for much longer, until 21 September.

The Orchid Kaleidoscope at the Flower Dome.

The Orchid Kaleidoscope at the Flower Dome.

Inside the Orchid Kaleidoscope.

Inside the Orchid Kaleidoscope.

A display of competition orchids at Orchid Extravaganza.

A display of competition orchids at Orchid Extravaganza.

For photography enthusiasts, a photography contest, COLOURS, will be held during SGF 2014. Those who wish to participate may submit photographs that best represent the theme Colours through the contest Facebook app, from 16 August to 7 September. The contest is open to Singaporeans and residents of Singapore who are above 13 years old and have a Facebook account. Prizes include the top prize of a Canon DSLR camera and printer worth S$1528/-. For more information on the contest and SGF (including ticketing), do visit the Singapore Garden Festival’s website or Facebook Page.


More of the orchids at Orchid Extravaganza

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Strange Horizons: reflections on the alien invasion at the bay

28 05 2014

Maybe now not such a strange horizon – the view of the alien structures that have invaded the new world at Marina Bay’s Garden’s by the Bay, reflected off the Dragonfly Lake. The structures are probably among the most photographed in Singapore and are now very recognisable across the world. In the foreground, three of the garden’s 18 Supertrees are seen with the two cooled conservatories in the background. The taller of the cooled conservatories is the 58 metre high Cloud Forest, which replicates the moist cooled environments of the tropical montane regions and features a 35 metre man made mountain along with a 30 metre high waterfall. The longer of the two conservatories is the Flower Dome in which the cool-dry springtime climates of the Mediterranean and semi-arid sub-tropical regions is replicated. The Gardens by the Bay, which is now in its second year (having opened in June 2012), has become one of Singapore’s most visited tourist attractions.

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Fields of gold and more

22 04 2014

The Gardens by the Bay’s tulips are right at this moment, in full bloom and there will be just a few days to catch them before the next round of replanting commences. The tulips, at the Flower Dome, have been brought for Tulipmania and will colour the Flower Field until 4 May 2014. There was a little more excitement at this year’s Tulipmania – with appearances made by Miffy, the very popular Dutch children’s book character, who has been brought in by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Miffy was also around to witness an Easter egg hunt that was organised by KLM, on Sunday – a day that saw huge crowds descend on the Flower Dome and some lucky children walking away with much sought after Miffy merchandise. More information on Tulipmania including on a photo competition the Gardens by the Bay is running together with Canon Singapore can be found on a previous post: Colours of April: Going Dutch at the Gardens.

Photographs from Tulipmania 2014

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Singapore Landscapes: A body of water named after a municipal engineer

17 03 2014

Described in its early days as an area of picturesque loveliness, MacRitchie Reservoir and its surroundings, remains today an area in Singapore to find an escape in. Singapore’s first impounding reservoir, MacRitchie was first created by the building of a dam from 1864 to 1868, and has been enlarged twice to the size it is today. The reservoir is today set on the fringe of a secondary forest – now is part of the Central Catchment Reserve, that if not for the reservoir being there, might be with us today.

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An article in the 22 May 1869 edition of the Straits Times describes the reservoir:

“Probably within the radius of double its (the reservoir’s) distance from town, there exists no point in the island possessing the same charms of placid loveliness that the abortive reservoir offers to the view of the excursionist”.

The same article also describes the existence of the many “Malayan hamlets” that had existed when “pioneers of the work first intruded upon the solitude of the valley”, going on to describe how the fruit trees that had been left behind under “the shadow of the great primeval forest” has lent “an interest to the spot beyond the picturesque loveliness which the artificial lake has produced”.

The reservoir, once known as Thomson Road Reservoir, was named after James MacRitchie, a municipal engineer who had overseen the second expansion of the the reservoir in 1891. That expansion was to increase the reservoir’s holding capacity from what was an equivalent of 50 days supply to  a capacity which held 200 days of supply.

The much travelled Mr MacRitchie – he had taken up several appointments including ones that took him to Calcutta, Japan and South America, who had arrived in Singapore in late 1883; had an illustrious career in Singapore as the colony’s Municipal Engineer, before his untimely passing in 1895 at the age of 47.

Besides the waterworks and the improvement of its supply lines that included the laying of pipelines and the construction of filter beds , one group of which is located at the corner of Cavenagh Road and Bukit Timah Road, Mr MacRitchie was also responsible for overseeing several civil works, the most notable of which are the building of a number of bridges and several markets. These included some that were to become well-known landmarks such as the 1886 Coleman Bridge (dismantled in the late 1980s), the Read Bridge, the Pulau Saigon Bridge (dismantled in 1986) and the Telok Ayer Market (Lau Pa Sat).








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