A walk on the wild side

15 05 2011

I took a walk into a world where there might not have been one, where gold, crimson and blue tinged fairies dance a flight of joy, a joy that’s echoed in the singing of songs of joy that eludes ears made weary by the cacophony of the grey world we have found ourselves in. It is a world that seeks to be found in the midst of the cold grey world we find around us, a world that we may soon lose with the lost of the reasons for its being. The world I speak of is none other than the Green Corridor that has existed solely because of the railway which has allowed a green and seemingly distant world to exist next to the concrete world that we have created in our island.

A world that seeks to be discovered - but how much longer will it be there for us?

The walk on the wild side passed through some two kilometres of plush greenery which now probably exists only because of the railway that runs through the area.

The walk that I took was with a group of some 30 people, led by the Nature Society of Singapore and the National Library Board (NLB) to a stretch that I had previously only seen from the perspective of a passenger on the train. It was a short but interesting walk that started at the foot of a railway bridge across Dunearn and Bukit Timah that takes me back to my childhood days – the black truss bridge that I have since my early days looking out for it from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100, associated with the area. Led by our expert guide, Ms Margie Hall, we were taken not just on a history trip through the slightly more than two kilometre route to the road bridge over the railway at Old Holland Road (close to its junction with Ulu Pandan/Holland Roads), but on a nature trail, as names of birds some of which as Singaporeans we have forgotten about, rattled off Ms Hall’s tongue.

The railway bridge, our starting point, was one that I have identified with the area since my early days spent looking out for it from the back seat of my father's Austin 1100.

One of the features of the walk from a historical perspective was of course the station at Bukit Timah, built to serve the great railway deviation of 1932 which turned the line in that direction and onto Tanjong Pagar. These days, the station serves more as a point where the exchange of the key token, made necessary by the single track is made, a practice I have observed many times from my many encounters with the train.

Bukit Timah Station now serves as a point for the exchange of the key token. In the days gone by, the station was where racehorses coming in to race at the Turf Club were offloaded as well.

A waiting train at Bukit Timah Station.

It was beyond the station that my journey of discovery started. Looking into the distance the width of the clearing through which the line ran looked very much wider than most of the other areas I was familiar with. This was understandable from the perspective of the station itself where alternate tracks for waiting trains to shunt onto were necessary. The width was of course explained by the fact that a line had branched off at the station – the old Jurong Line which was constructed in a project initiated by the Economic Development Board (EDB) to supplement the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. The line ran in parallel for a short distance before turning west into a tunnel under Clementi Road – what is now an area with dense vegetation that is featured in Liao Jiekai’s award winning movie Red Dragonflies which is currently on a limited run at Filmgarde Iluma. The stretch is already popular with cyclists and joggers who in using the stretch of the Green Corridor, shows that there is already a lush stretch of greenery that is ready made – with the authorities having to spend very little money to develop compared to the millions spent on the park connector network. Ms Hall also shared her visions for the area, saying that the tracks should be kept along with the station in its original condition – the station, which has also been listed as one with conservation status (meaning that only its façade needs to be conserved). Ms Hall felt that conserving the station without keeping it in the original condition would not serve the purpose of conserving it – something that I certainly agree with. Some of the thoughts she had included running a replica railway over a short length of tracks to and from the station to allow future generations to have an appreciation for the trains which had served us for over a century.

The stretch of the Green Corridor is already popular with joggers ...

... and cyclists ... proving that is already a long "park connector" that is ready for use.

The clearing through which the portion of the corridor south of Bukit Timah Station runs is wider than most other parts of the rail corridor.

Ms. Hall felt that the tracks should be kept in place for our future generations to appreciate.

The area where the Jurong Line would have turned off into the tunnel is marked by piles of wooden railway sleepers and is one where we stopped and were able to take in the diversity of birds and insects in their songs and dances of joy in and around the lush greenery before us. It was at this point where Ms Hall was in her element, being able to identify birds from the sounds that rose above the others in the background, identifying that of an Iora and a Tailorbird upon hearing their calls. Ms Hall also pointed out Long-Tailed Parakeets high in the trees as well as a pair of Scaly-Breasted Munias foraging in the grass. From this point the corridor is marked with a narrow path through which we passed through single file. The sight of the bridge over Old Holland Road which marked the end of the trail brought with it what was perhaps an ominous gathering of dark clouds … dark clouds that seem to hover over the future of a wonderful gift of nature that Singaporeans seemed to have passed over.

It wasn't just red dragonflies that were able to discover ...

... but also saffron coloured ones ...

... and turquoise coloured ones as well.

A parakeet perched high at the top of a tree - one of the many birds we encountered.

Morning Glory.

A cassava or tapioca leaf.

Proceeding single file on towards Old Holland Road.

For the Green Corridor, the first of July this year sees not only sees the end of its use by the railway, but its continued existence would be under threat. The indications are that there are already plans to redevelop some of the areas which would be reclaimed by Singapore. During the budget debate in Parliament in March this year, the then Foreign Minister George Yeo was quoted as saying that “the development of areas along the railway line, including Silat Estate and the expansion of the One-North business park in Buona Vista, will start after July 1″ (see the Straits Times report dated 4 March 2011). It has also come to my attention that a tender was called for the “removal and storage of railway including ancillary structures from Woodlands Train Checkpoint to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station” which closed recently with work scheduled to commence on 1 July 2011. It does look that proposals to retain the green corridor made by the NSS has largely been overlooked by the authorities involved, and the authorities are pressing ahead with the redevelopment of a rich natural resource and a part of our green heritage. It is a shame if this does happen, as not only will we see the last of the passing locomotives and carriages that weaved their way slowly across the island for over a century, but also the last bits of a part of Singapore that the railway has given to Singapore. It only through my recent wanderings that I have become so well acquainted with some portions of it and have began to have a appreciation for what the corridor is worth to us. There are some wonderful ideas that advocates of the Green Corridor have for preserving the corridor – some were in fact presented and discussed right after the walk which was part of a programme that included a forum. This I would touch on in another post. What I hope for is that whoever is involved in the plans for the redevelopment of the area pauses to consider some of these proposals more seriously and to also consider we and more importantly our future generations, would be losing should the Green Corridor be taken over by the concrete jungle that so much of Singapore has now become.

Arched brickwork of a culvert supporting the railway tracks near Old Holland Road.

The little things that matter - the rich biodiversity that the railway corridor supports would be lost to the concrete jungle should plans to redevelop the corridor be executed.

From one bridge to the next ... the bridge at Old Holland Road under which the railway corridor passes through.





Chasing the dragon

3 05 2011

(Liao Jiekai’s Red Dragonflies that is)!

I recently attended a special screening of Liao Jiekai’s celebrated Red Dragonflies, which starts a theatrical run at Filmgarde Iluma from 5 May 2011, during which an introduction was given by the Director himself and the two Co-Producers Tan Bee Thiam and Lyn-Anne Loy, who provided a little insight to the background and making of the low budget film. What was interesting to learn was that Liao, sees himself as a teacher rather than a filmmaker (he lectures at the School of the Arts), and considers filmmaking a hobby of sorts. That I guess frees him from the conventions of commercially driven filmmaking, and allowing him to focus on the expression of himself in the 96 minute movie. The movie is by no means one that can be described as entertaining, it is, as Tan mentioned, not a movie that is very watchable if it is entertainment that one is after, and the absence of much dialogue does make it a little heavy going at times.

Red Dragonflies, a film by Liao Jiekai that revolves around three teenagers' exploration of a disused railway line, with begin a theatrical run on 5 May 2011 at Filmgarde, Iluma.

The film does start off with giving the audience the sense that it would be painfully slow-moving. The opening scene brings in the main character, a young artist Rachel, who has returned to Singapore from New York. It is the scene that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, in which a lack of dialogue did is offset by the mood the scenes sought to convey. The next scene had Rachel walking by a old shop stepping into it and sitting on a chair, a primer perhaps for the theme of the movie which the following scene in which she visits her grandmother, does bring in. The scene in which past is juxtaposed with the present, centres on memories evoked by the familiarity of what was around her. In that laughter and the carefree days of Rachel childhood, seemed to be held in contrast with the almost melancholic silence of the present which Rachel finds herself in.

It wasn’t difficult for me to identify with the movie or its theme. A large part of the blog I maintain does touch on much of the same theme: a juxtaposition of past and present, and an attempt to reconcile the carefree days of a softer and very different Singapore that I interacted with in younger days with the cold modern it has become in my adulthood in which very little is left in which I can identify with. My relationship with my surroundings has in fact changed in a way that provokes a longing to go back to that world in which I had planted my roots in.

The juxtaposition of past and present is used to convey the contrasts in relationships and the strain that time and space may have had on them.

A significant part of the movie revolves around an attempt to rediscover the joys and the carefree days of youth, centring on the exploration of a disused railway track, a track that I have myself taken to discover in the present day to rekindle memories of a greener and rural Singapore that has long disappeared. We are taken through what has become for me scenes that are familiar as well as ones through a dense forested part of the old Jurong Railway Line that has been overtaken by nature. It is not so much in the scenes that bring the movie out, but in going back to the adventures of simpler days of youth, that a contrast is made with the a rediscovery of the past in the complication of living the present, as Rachel seeks to rediscover and rekindle relationships that have changed with once familiar faces and surroundings. Overall, it is a movie that will be appreciated for its expression and one that perhaps can be appreciated only for what it is and what it represents. It is a movie that captivated me throughout as I sought to discover the mystery behind each and every scene, and one that left me spellbound and intoxicated in a way that perhaps one that chasing the dragon would.


Synopsis

Rachel and her two friends explore an abandoned railway track that runs through a dense forest, but an unforeseen incident brings their little adventure to an abrupt end. Elsewhere, 26-year-old Rachel rekindles an old friendship with a high school friend. When a little boy from her past reappears, Rachel finds herself retracing a trail of iron and wood. Wistful and mysterious, the film depicts a world littered with incongruity, absences and traces of childhood dreams.

(from BAFICI programme notes)
A young artist goes back to Singapore from New York. She returns home, to old friends and familiar places. Not everything fits in. Memories and friendships are like roots but also like mysteries, and like such, they’re inexact, slippery, at times revealing, at times mere detours. Two teenage boys and a girl, all in their school uniforms, walk near a train track around an area of abundant vegetation; their gait is an exploratory one, charged with fears, amazements and new things (yes, there’s echoes of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me) One of them gets lost. In that loss, and in the memories of a grown woman, there’s a sense of unease, a search, and the chance of meeting with the past and the people from it. A film of derivations with a subtle and singular sensibility, Liao Jiekai’s opera prima leads us to discuss the always hard to accomplish –even to mention– idea of cinema as poetry, which in this case is made of soft connections, juxtapositions, rhymes, and bars, that seem as free as necessary.

Awards:

Special Jury Prize, International Competition: Jeonju International Film Festival 2010
International Competition: Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films 2010 (BAFICI)
FIPRESCI Competition: Hong Kong International Film Festival 2010
Winds of Asia Competition: Tokyo International Film Festival 2010
Göteborg International Film Festival 2011


Filmmaker Biography
Liao Jiekai is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in Singapore. He received his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and lectures at the School of the Arts. His debut feature length film, Red Dragonflies won the Special Jury Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival, especially noted for discovering independent filmmakers. The film was also selected for international competition in the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films (BAFICI), Asia New Talent competition in the Shanghai International Film Festival and Winds of Asia-Arab Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival. Most recently, he is the contributing artist to Nedko Solakov’s The Flying Method of an Artist with a Fear of Flying at the Singapore Biennale 2011. He is a founding member of 13 Little Pictures and his active involvement in the Singapore film scene brought him credentials as producer and editor of several independent films.

About 13 Little Pictures
Driven by a love of cinema, 13 Little Pictures is a film collective bound by the spirit of collaboration and shared hope of creating films with unique directorial visions. Making films and friends at the same time, 13 Little Pictures works together in the belief that taking this journey together—challenging, inspiring, helping, and supporting each other—fosters a sense of community in our individual exploration of the possibilities of cinema. To date, 13 Little Pictures has made more than 15 feature and short films that have screened to international audiences in Rotterdam, Berlin, Vancouver, Tokyo, Bueno Aires, and more.


Red Dragonflies opens 5 May 2011 exclusively at Filmgarde Cineplex, Iluma. Tickets are available for online booking from today (3 Mat 2011).


[Photos and trailer courtesy of 13 Little Pictures]








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