Up on the hill

by Bee Lian Goh, Sep 5, 2001 | Destinations: Singapore

In the midst of the busy city, circled by roads filled with cars and buses hurrying their occupants to yet another important meeting in another packed day, there stands a hill. Rising serenely above the bustle of Stamford Road, River Valley Road and Hill Street, minutes away from shopping-mad Orchard Road, Fort Canning Park reigns like a stately queen.

A lovely green oasis of gentle slopes and meandering paths, Fort Canning Park is not as well known as its more glamorous sister park, the Botanic Gardens. Thanks to its topography, Fort Canning Park, with its slopes and steps, is not the choice of joggers, although some may be spotted pounding the paved paths that snake up and down and round and round the hill, in the cool morning or late afternoon before sundown.

Once called "Bukit Larangan", or 'Forbidden Hill" in Malay, it was thought that the palace of Malay ancestor kings had stood there. The beautiful view from the hill made Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, decide to build his bungalow and to establish the first botanical garden here in 1822. Until the mid-19th century, it was home to Singapore's governors, earning it the name "Government Hill". Around 1860, the hill was turned into a fort by the colonial government, and named after Viscount Charles John Canning, Governor-General and the first Viceroy of India.

Sprawling over an area of 19 hectares in land-scarce Singapore, the park offers peaceful refuge on a balmy, hot day if you are so fortunate as to be able to visit the park on a weekday. During the week, the lawn in front of Fort Canning Centre will be deserted. Save for the occasional park worker in the distance, there will be hardly a soul in sight. You could lie on the grass and contemplate the clouds. The irreverent breezes ruffle the crowning glories of venerable old trees and create gentle rustling music to lull you to sleep, perhaps in the shade of a spreading old tree. Or you may want to sit and ponder in one of the picturesque cupolas on the lawn. The faint tinkling of a piano may remind you that you are not in the wilderness. For Fort Canning Centre is also home to the Singapore Dance Theatre and to Theatreworks. But these belong to the park's other self, the night bird that is nowhere to be seen on this bright and sunny afternoon.

The first time I lay down on the lawn at the park, a friend reminded me that I was lying on the grounds of a former cemetery. Fort Canning Green was Singapore's first Christian cemetery. The northern half was reserved for Catholic burials, and the southern half for Protestant burials. But now, a benign peace hangs in the air. The cemetery was cleared for use in 1830, and many tombstones unearthed here were placed in the boundary wall. Reading the inscriptions in English, French, German, Dutch and Russian, I wonder about these men, women and children who braved the seas to seek a new life, to live and die on a tropical island, thousands of miles from the land of their forefathers.

What were their lives like, what hardships did they endure being transplanted from their accustomed climes to the sweltering heat? How did the English roses fare in temperatures that make the orchid bloom in brilliant hues, in the days before air-conditioning? Did they not melt in their many layers of cotton and lace? But surely, many among them would have enjoyed the good life here, with large, spacious bungalows and servants to take care of the tedious tasks of daily life, while they enjoyed their tea parties and evening promenades in horse-drawn carriages along the Esplanade, and gin-and-tonic at sundown.

But that is of another time, another world. Now, the park is here to be enjoyed by all. A sweet fragrance comes wafting from beyond the low boundary walls. Going through one of the Gothic gates, you are greeted by a bright green swathe of pandan (screwpine) plants. The long, pointed leaves lend their aroma and color to countless local dishes. From the pastel-green, feather-light, pandan-chiffon cakes, to palm-sugar seaweed jellies, to the perennial-favorite rice cooked with coconut milk ("nasi lemak"), pandan leaves are indispensable in the kitchen of many Asian cooks.

The pandan plants mark the start of the Spice Garden, a small replica of the original 19-ha tract established by Raffles in 1822 as the first "experimental and botanical garden" in Singapore. Lemon grass sprout in happy confusion on your left, while curry plants of varying heights stake out their area. Walk along the trail and you will be greeted by cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, turmeric, basil, ginger and other spice plants.

And don't forget to look up, for the tall trees are as full of surprises. For example, the clump of breadfruit trees that soar so tall that one can only admire their fruit from a hapless distance. In my schooldays, I used to read of pirates stranded on desert islands living on breadfruit. But it was only a few years ago that I learned there were breadfruit trees right here in Fort Canning Park.

The layout of the park creates many quiet little corners, thoughtfully furnished with benches or seats. One often feels that there is no one else at the park. Wending down the paths, you get different views of the city. It all seems so far away, the sound of traffic blanketed by the trees at the perimeter. The high-rise office and housing blocks look less imposing from the elevation of the hill, through the branches of the trees.

History buffs can seek out The Battle Box, a maze of bunkers nine metres underground, which was the Far East Command Centre for British military operations. It was here on the morning of 15 February 1942 that Lt-General Percival made the crucial decision to surrender to the Japanese during the Second World War.

Or visit the Keramat, meaning "a sacred place" in Malay, the traditional burial ground of a revered leader. It is believed to be the resting place of Iskandar Shah, a ruler of Temasek.

Many artifacts unearthed during various construction works attest to the rich history of the hill. During construction of the service reservoir in 1926, 14th century gold jewellery of the Majapahit style was unearthed, and is now stored at the National Museum. As are Yuan dynasty porcelain and stoneware, local ceramics and earthenware, some dating back 600 to 700 years. The presence of mercury jars used in gold refining and glass debris indicates that the site may have been a royal workshop where goldsmiths, glassworkers and other craftsmen made jewellery for the royal family of ancient Temasek.

The gems that the visitor today are liable to find are the lilting birds that flit from tree to tree. Collared kingfishers, copper-smith barbets, yellow-vented bulbuls, and the black-naped oriole are among the feathered residents of the park, sharing it with their neighbors the squirrels, bats and lizards.

The splendid old trees, such as the fig, saga, silk-cotton and yellow flame, that preside over the park have witnessed so much in their lifetimes. Besides letting birds and small animals scamper all over, they also play host to ferns and assorted epiphytes who cling tightly on to their trunks and branches.

Or watch over freshly-wed young couples who pose for photographs at the park after having their marriages solemnized at the Registry of Marriages located at the fringe of the park. A visitor to the park on a Saturday morning will find the lawn speckled with little groups of young couples posing for photographs, with family and friends looking on.

As many ethnic-Chinese couples still see the registration of marriage at the ROM as a legal formality, necessary for mundane things like applying for a flat with the Housing & Development Board, the civil ceremony is a less formal, low-key affair attended by a few friends and family members. Many ascend the hill to have photographs taken to mark the day, but it will be the traditional wedding ceremony months or years later, complete with serving tea to both sets of parents and relatives, grand wedding banquet in a hotel ballroom for hundreds of guests, with the bride in her radiant best in several changes of gorgeous gowns, that is considered the "real" wedding.

Some couples do combine both the civil and traditional ceremonies on the same day, and the bride's entourage is busy spreading out the train and miles of tulle of her gown to best effect for the shoot. Favored backdrops include the white cupolas under the canopy of a tree on the lawn, the Gothic gates, as well as the pieces of sculpture that are gifts from ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member countries.

The weekend is also when the park gets to party. When there is a performance in the evening, the crowds start trickling in from the late afternoon. Events such as the Ballet Under the Stars performances by the Singapore Dance Theatre see more families with young children. They come bearing baskets of food, mats, groundsheets, cooler boxes, low chairs, and all sorts of picnic paraphernalia. Some have been seen lugging wicker chests from which they pull out wine glasses, cutlery and plates, napkins, even an umbrella to provide shade before the sun goes down. For a few hours before the performance begins, the lawn is filled with crowds munching happily away while children squeal and tumble and play catch, weaving in and out of the bodies parked on the grass. Ice cream vendors do a roaring trade when the weather is hot. By the time the sun has set, most of the food has been consumed, darkness descends over the lawn, with only a gentle light emanating from Fort Canning Centre at the back. Attention focuses on the lights and action on the stage at the lower end of the lawn, while the city fades into insignificance beyond.

The park has been the venue of the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts & Dance) festivals since 1998. Such events attract a different sort of crowd. Fewer children are to be seen. Instead, out in full force are working adults, couples, locals as well as foreigners. Fewer bother with picnics, and it is the beer and wine vendors who are smiling at the cash register.

Vivid memories I have of WOMAD include Tibetan singer Yungchen Llamo's performance in 1998, on a small stage under an ancient tree trailing wispy vines that formed a natural curtain behind her, while the singer's long white robes and long black hair took on a luminescence thanks to skillful lighting that was more akin to moonlight. Forget about MTV Unplugged, this was pure magic as she stood there inches away from the standing audience and unfurled her crystal-clear voice which soared into the night sky and transported the rapt listeners to another realm, never mind that we didn't understand the earthly language in which she sang.

While she held court at the southern terrace, Shooglenifty was rocking the crowds with their brand of Celtic folk music and fancy fiddlework. The mosh pit was a throbbing mass of moving bodies that didn't seem bothered by the heat. Taut young bodies glistening with sweat battle for space with less fit physiques and move the temperature up another few hot and humid degrees.

At various events over the years, besides the WOMAD festivals, the park has reverberated with the sounds of musicians from all continents. Chinese opera, African drums, Brazilian samba, jazz, rock, classical, even a memorable bagpipe solo by Dave Williamson on the stage with Midge Ure.

Once the crowd is all wired up, the hardest part is to end the party. Some event organizers try to sweeten the ending by having late-night dance clubs, providing music by which the crowd can remain and dance for a couple of hours more. But still, even that music cannot go on forever. They linger on after the last performer has left, the technicians are packing the equipment and the workmen dismantling the stage. Then slowly but surely, the music fades but remains ringing in their ears. They drift off, down the hill, perhaps to continue partying at a club somewhere, perhaps home to bed.

And slowly, peace descends on Fort Canning Park again. When the sun rises the next morning, it has resumed its look of stately innocence, none the worse for the wear, no eye-bags, no hangovers, and the birds and cicadas reclaim their domain.


WOMAD 2001

National Parks Board - Fort Canning Park