SINGAPORE - The Garden City, true to its name, is full of gardens - although it may take some digging around to find them.
In Toa Payoh, a neighbourhood park that most people pass through only briefly holds a labyrinthine maze of surprises. In Outram, a park on a hill is a small oasis in the city. And in Novena and Punggol, rooftop terraces and sky gardens are there to be explored.
By the National Parks Board's reckoning, there are some 300 parks in Singapore. Some, like the Botanic Gardens and the spiffy new Gardens by the Bay, are wildly popular.
But parks don't need to be official, government-managed ones. For instance, many a shopping mall or hospital has publicly accessible roof or terrace gardens. Studies have shown that hospital patients with a view of greenery are less anxious, have fewer post- operative complications and suffer less pain than those with a view of brick walls.
Other parks are well-hidden havens of quiet contemplation. Some are perched atop hills, and this physical inaccessibility is the very thing that keeps them hidden. So if there's one key to finding Singapore's "secret" gardens, it is to look up. Many are less secret and more open than you realise.
Whether above you, or at your feet, even in the quietest of gardens, there are unexpected visitors - a trio of intrepid tourists who have walked up a steep hill, or a polytechnic landscape architecture class.
You might also see visitors of the animal or insect kind: black-naped orioles that are a bright flash of yellow and a liquid burble flitting between the trees; crimson sunbirds; changeable and green-crested lizards; and assassin bugs that look deceptively like ants.
In Singapore, the jungle survives even in the smallest of gardens, amid urbanity's concrete one.
Yet, given half a chance, if not trimmed and subdued, it will spring forth, threatening to reclaim disused railway land, swallow cemeteries, and take over parks tucked away on hillsides. It's this very readiness to grow lush and green that gives Singapore part of its soul. Time, then, for some soul-searching.
Upside to Singapore's high-rises
Singapore's many high-rises have a hidden upside - they are home to roof gardens and sky terraces.
While most are in private condominiums and offices, some are free and publicly accessible to those in the know.
Often, these are planted in hospitals and medical centres - perhaps to ease the spirits of patients.
Take a lift to the eighth floor of Novena Medical Centre and you will find a small garden area with seats and a wooden deck. Across in the distance, atop another tower block, are intriguing stands of trees - for exploring another day.
Go back into the centre and you will find La Ristrettos cafe, named for a smaller-than-usual espresso shot. The cafe has an outdoor garden with sheltered tables, where a water feature's gurgle is broken only by a compressor's roar.
At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun are several terrace and roof gardens, while even multi-storey HDB carparks at Punggol feature mid-level roof gardens.
High-rise gardens are one way Singapore can be a more "3-D" city, says scientific coordinator Stephen Cairns at the Future Cities Laboratory, a tie-up between Swiss university ETH Zurich and National Research Foundation.
The high-rises could be a better mix of work, shops, restaurants, transport functions and public spaces to "take some of the stress off the ground plane", he says. "As you put more and more people into high- rise buildings, the ground level gets more and more taxed. So you have to pull some of those functions up into the tower itself."
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital is at 90 Yishun Central; Punggol's Edgedale Plains neighbourhood has roof gardens in carparks.
A Pearl hidden on a hill with history
To reach Pearl's Hill City Park, I climb, on a scorching afternoon, up apparently endless steps from Chinatown.
If it seems as though many "secret gardens" are on hillsides, it is this very inaccessibility that keeps them hidden.
The shaded, wonkily pitched pathways here are more reminiscent of something in Hong Kong's Mid-Levels than middle Singapore, though far less steep. Watch out for the teeming red ants on the shiny green handrails.
But even at 3pm on a weekday, a couple canoodle on a bench, park workers shore up an eroding slope, and a trio of perplexed tourists wander until they find a short cut to get to their hostel.
A walk along its paths offers views of the horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank apartment tower through the trees, and Outram Road to the south-west.
Pearl's Hill City Park covers 9ha, but it was originally a much larger area of Chinese-owned spice plantations that may have predated the 1819 arrival of the British.
Ship's captain James Pearl bought them up until he owned the whole hill.
He retired to Europe and sold it to the Government, and the monicker Pearl's Hill stuck.
When Fort Canning was completed in 1861, the military found that the higher Pearl's Hill was blocking its firing line - so it simply lopped off the hill's top in 1891.
In 1904, a reservoir was built on the hilltop and is still the main source of supply to Chinatown.
The site became an official park only in 1971, and is a significant piece of greenery in the city.
The park's broadest, flattest entrance is from Pearl Bank near Outram Park MRT station, but it is also accessible from Chin Swee Road, Pearl's Hill Road and Pearl's Hill Terrace.
Sleepy yet awakening the senses
Blink, and you will miss Toa Payoh Sensory Park.
Plenty of people pass through the wee patch of green, but few pause to explore its twists and turns. Indeed, several Toa Payoh residents tell me they have not even known of the park's existence.
The 1.1ha park at Lorong 5, built in 2009 on land where two older Housing Board blocks were torn down, contains surprises for all five senses.
A pair of sound- reflecting parabolic discs tempts you to clap between them to make the noise reverberate, while a set of oddly curlicued poles is a curious optical illusion.
When viewed from a right angle through a peephole in the wall, they resolve themselves into a face: an eye, a nose, an ear.
A water feature and embossed panels invite visitors to touch them. And while you are not allowed to sample the plants, the herbs and fruit trees fenced in a community garden do represent the contents of a kitchen.
It was designed by local planners Surbana International with noted Japanese landscape architect Yoshisuke Miyake, and its sense- stimulating features are intended to have healing qualities.
Four years on, it is sleepy and slightly crumbling at the edges - which is part of its charm.
A ginger cat dozes on a bench.
The odd letter has fallen off a set of panels that tells the history of Toa Payoh, an estate of 4 sq km and HDB's second satellite town.
Only half of a white textured sculpture, meant to resemble a pair of twined gourds, remains on a plinth.
The blocks surrounding the park are a mix: from two-room rental flats to newer five-room ones. Both the market and hawker centre on either end of the park have been renovated in recent years.
At dawn, senior citizens go through their calisthenics there. Even on a drizzly weekday morning, a younger man does push- ups at a fitness corner. And on weekends, children clamber over a colourful plastic play frame, a maze of tubes and slides.
Madam Leong Poh Lee, 72, is there too, resting on a sheltered bench. She has lived in a three- room flat just across the road for more than four decades.
When she married a teacher, they bought a flat from HDB for the princely sum of $7,800. "I don't want to move," the retired seamstress says in Mandarin. "Toa Payoh is so convenient."
When her son was small, they would visit the bigger, older Toa Payoh Town Park with its pond and bridges. Now, she prefers Toa Payoh Sensory Park: "It's quieter and its air is better."
In 40 years, she has seen Toa Payoh develop and gain 40-storey blocks, a bus interchange, and an MRT station. Her life, she says, mirrors Singapore's story: "Wo de cheng zhang jiu shi Xin Jia Po de gu shi." The park may look ordinary but, like Madam Leong, it tells stories of Toa Payoh and the nation.
Toa Payoh Sensory Park can be reached from Lorong 5 or Lorong 4, Toa Payoh, and is between Blocks 63, 64, 68 and 70.
An oasis of calm away from bustling Orchard
Mount Emily Park may be the Singapore park with the least payoff for the most work.
At least, that's what you may think initially as you hike up the 130 or so steps from the air-conditioned lowlands of Dhoby Ghaut and along winding roads to the humid hilltop, or make the climb by the other way from the Rochor side.
Compared to more famous cousins like Fort Canning Park and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, or the brand-new Gardens by the Bay, Mount Emily Park is relatively ignored as a city park.
But if you want a breath of fresh air and a moment of calm away from bustling Orchard Road, Mount Emily is perfect.
The neatly manicured 3.1ha park lies between Little India and downtown Dhoby Ghaut, and rises between the Rochor and Stamford canals, which were once rivers. One edge backs onto the Istana, though all that can be seen of the presidential residence grounds are tall hedges behind white metal bars.
The park once had a municipal reservoir that was converted into Singapore's first public swimming pool in 1929.
While no official information exists on when it closed, the Singapore Sports Council left it out of annual reports after 1982.
This, and the surrounding Mount Sophia and Wilkie Road area, were once home to schools like Methodist Girls' School and Nan Hwa Girls' School, which have since moved.
The dome of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Sikh temple rises in the distance.
Tiers of new condominiums are visible all the way down to Little India.
Fitness enthusiasts often work out with their trainers there in the morning.
In the afternoon, children scamper about a playground frame.
A lone jogger rounds the path, while young labourers in janitorial gear take a break on benches. A kingfisher darts, a streak of white and blue, into the trees.
Singapore Polytechnic landscape architecture students troop up the steps.
They're doing a project on the Rochor Canal area, about areas fragmented by urban development, says senior lecturer Idris Bidin.
Mr Idris says: "In landscape, we talk about the impact of different land forms. This is elevated ground, with a panoramic view.
"The air quality is different and there's more privacy as you move up."
FIRST PUBLIC POOL
The park once had a municipal reservoir that was converted into Singapore's first public swimming pool in 1929. While no official information exists on when it closed, the Singapore Sports Council left it out of annual reports after 1982.
Access to Mount Emily Park is up Handy Road, then Sophia Road via stairs, or via Mount Emily Road near Little India MRT station.
A community farm for play and photos
From the canal path along Sungei Ulu Pandan, or the flats around Clementi Avenue 4, the only clue that Clementi Farm exists in the neighbourhood is a set of nondescript signboards and a couple of staircases that lead you there.
On weekdays, Singapore's largest community farm is quiet. In the morning and late afternoon, farmers - mostly senior citizens - putter around tending to their crops of brinjal, cucumber, chilli and lime on 8m by 4m plots.
Several grow flowers and herbs, like roselle for brewing tea; one grows a spectacular Phaelanopsis orchid. And chiku trees have sprouted at the edges of the farm.
When the farmers are out, the gate to the community farm is locked. When they are in on weekends, the space is transformed as multiple generations of Clementi residents of all ages drop by to farm, chit-chat with their friends, shoot artistic photographs, or play.
Before the 1,250 sq m farm was officially opened in March this year, it existed under the legal radar.
It sits on former railway land, the tracks still visible all the way to Clementi Avenue 6. People had been growing bananas, rambutans and other crops on rustic plots there for decades.
Last year, tho ugh, some residents complained about mosquitoes and smoke from burning leaves, and Holland- Bukit Timah GRC MP Sim Ann had to help work out a compromise.
So the Clementi Farm is not quite as secret as it once was, and the new plots are smaller than the old ones. "It's sad, lah," says retired fireman Haji Wansi Dahri, 79, who grows mint, chye sim, kangkong and other vegetables to share with neighbours.
"But illegal is illegal."
Still, he'd rather be out here. "If you sit at home, watch TV, it's no good. Coming here is like exercise."
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