My special tree

My special tree

Some of the many trees in the Garden City that is Singapore have hidden stories of people who tended them, benefited from them, worked under them, slept under them or loved them. An ongoing exhibition at the National Library captures these tales and relationships between Singaporeans and their special trees.

Singapore, Very Old Tree is spearheaded by freelance writer Adeline Chia and artist Robert Zhao, both 32, who worked with two researchers from last December to unearth these individuals and their stories.

Ms Chia says: "Although people know Singapore as a Garden City, the image is ultimately an impersonal one of anonymous trees and gardeners. We want to give these gardeners faces and names."

They trawled through local nature blogs and National Parks Board (NParks) publications, and approached NParks for contacts of tree lovers and community gardeners. The team also went through newspaper archives for tree-related stories, tapped on their networks of friends and put out calls on social media.

Three months later, they had a list of about 80 trees, from which they picked 30 for the project.

Some of them are majestic old specimens, such as the angsana near the entrance of the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort. It is believed to have been planted in the 1880s by the British when the artillery battalion was stationed on the island, then known as Pulau Blakang Mati. With a girth of 10.2m, it is also the biggest angsana tree here. It has been cared for by gardener Mohd Yusri Abdullah for more than 20 years.

Other trees involved dramatic rescues and student activism, such as the Malayan Banyans next to the Goodman Arts Centre and at the Tanglin Trust School. Both were saved following calls by ex-students for their preservation.

Many other stories feature "humble and relatively young trees, never quite imperilled", says Ms Chia. "But we included them because they meant something to someone." Cobbler Goh Cheng Lam, 70, is fond of a Bodhi tree in Sungei Road, under which he has been operating for the past five years. Apart from giving him shade, it is also where his friends and regular customers hang out.

A home-grown rambutan tree reminds nature lover Goh Yue Yun, 57, of her late mother who planted it. "My late mother used to fertilise the tree with her diluted urine," she says. Ms Chia and Mr Zhao say some of the challenges they encountered in their project include pinning down the trees' ages and getting full views of the trees in photographs.

On the trees' ages, Ms Chia says: "We needed to rely on recollection by witnesses, look at old pictures to see if the trees were there before or compare a specimen of similar size with a known age."

Mr Zhao says most of the images were difficult to capture because the trees are "just too big". "Even with a wide-angle lens, I had to stand pretty far back."

He took the black-and-white pictures with the trees seen in full and the humans tiny to emphasise the contrast in scale. His illustrator-friend Sokkuan Tye hand-tinted the images in vintage-postcard style.

The project, mostly funded by the Singapore Memory Project's irememberSG Fund as part of the SG50 celebrations, also consists of a publication - a booklet of stories, a set of 30 postcards of the exhibited images and a map showing about 20 interesting trees in Singapore. The publication will be sold only a year from now as part of the irememberSG funding agreement.

Mr Zhao says: "The work is about spending a little more time considering something that is ubiquitous in the Singapore landscape. While we celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee, it is important to remember that some trees on our island easily surpass 100 years."

brynasim@sph.com.sg

Do you have an old tree that means something to you? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg

Irresistible draw of durian trees

At least twice a year, Mr Teo Teah On, 66, dons a construction helmet, construction boots, a long-sleeved shirt and pants, and heads into the Bukit Panjang forest at night to search for durians.

Alone, he sets off at 9pm from his flat along Jelapang Road in Bukit Panjang and treks about 3km into the jungle.

All he carries are a gunny sack for the durians, a torchlight and a wooden stick to fend off wild boars and snakes.

He has no fear, only immense enthusiasm for the potential loot out there.

"Once I know durian season is here, I just need to go out and pick the durians. I can't sleep knowing that they are lying there, waiting for me," he says with a laugh.

Mr Teo, a father of two who runs a carpentry business, has been doing this for seven years now. It all began when he was exercising in his neighbourhood and came close to the fringe of the forest.

He saw people emerging from it with gunny sacks filled to the brim with the thorny, pungent fruit.

As he is a lover of the fruit and a believer in durians that are picked from trees growing in the wild ("they don't have added fertilisers or chemicals"), his interest was immediately piqued.

The durian pickers he met told him there were about 100 durian trees scattered throughout the wilderness.

Previously, he would buy durians from one of his friends who picked them from the forests here.

Since he started collecting the fruit himself, he has been watching the durian season like a hawk.

He says the trees usually flower twice a year and the fruit falls about 100 days after that. Older trees between 60 and 70 years old can bear up to 200 fruits each time, while younger trees around 30 years old bear about 50 fruits each.

How does he know these things?

"I just do," says Mr Teo, who adds that once you start tracking these things and talking to people, you will learn.

"Walking in and out of the forest is a good workout. You will sweat a lot."

He saw the durian trees flowering in March this year, so he estimates the fruit fall to be in July.

He says poor weather conditions last year meant no fruit for the pickers, so they are all hoping for a good harvest this year.

It is unclear who has authority over the part of the forest where these durian trees grow. Under National Parks Board guidelines, it is illegal to pick up fallen fruit in places under its purview.

But the four other pickers Mr Teo usually hangs out with pick durians for personal consumption and not to sell. There is no competition among them either.

"We are all friends," says Mr Teo. "We meet in the forest, sit down for a chat, pick the durians, chat some more and then we head home."

There is no particular durian tree that they seek out because every tree's fruit has a slightly different taste, he says.

The sizes of the durians in the Bukit Panjang forest and the colour of their flesh vary, says Mr Teo.

But the trophy durians are those picked from a self-dubbed "XO Tree", a name referring to a popular variety of durians famous for its slightly alcoholic aftertaste.

"You can't tell which tree this is. You know only after you've eaten the fruit," he says.

On each trip, he usually collects up to 20 durians, weighing about 10kg.

Once home, he and his wife, Mrs Teo Cheng Hway, 58, set about opening the shells and getting the flesh packed into air-tight boxes, before tucking them away in the freezer. Stored this way, the fruit can last for up to six months, says Mr Teo.

Some boxes are refrigerated and consumed within days.

"I will complain that there's no space to put anything else and about the slight odour for those few months," says Mrs Teo, who helps her husband with his business. "But I like to eat durians and since the ones my husband brings back are the only ones I eat, I just have to deal with it."

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