Sidewalk stargazing pulls in the crowds

Sidewalk stargazing pulls in the crowds
SPACE MAN: Mr Chee, 40, stumbled onto stargazing in 1995. He started "sidewalk stargazing" shortly after getting his first telescope.

SINGAPORE - Queuing, the national pastime here, seems to have migrated beyond the realm of food into, well, space.

Every first Saturday of the month in Toa Payoh, snaking queues fill the open space outside the neighbourhood's library.

The end-point: High-powered telescopes pointing towards the sky, through which users get to catch a glimpse of Jupiter, Mars, Saturn or, if they are lucky, even a shooting star.

And it's free of charge, too.

The activity, which organiser Gary Chee calls "sidewalk stargazing", pulls in at least 300 people each time. These space buffs - ranging from families with children to the elderly - wait in line for about 20 minutes for their turn at a telescope.

Curious passers-by form a steady stream of "customers" for about three hours, although the sessions, which start at 8.30pm, can end as late as 1am.

This humble get-together is Mr Chee's dream come true. The IT consultant told My Paper that he had always wanted to bring the stars to ordinary people.

The 40-year-old stumbled onto stargazing in 1995, when he looked up at the sky while trekking on Adam's Peak, a mountain in central Sri Lanka. "The velvet dark sky was full of diamonds," he said.

Intrigued, he bought his first second-hand telescope for $400 and started scanning the skies in Toa Payoh. He managed to catch sight of Jupiter and its four moons.

Since then, he has gone on a mission to debunk the misconception that Singapore is too bright to see stars. In fact, he said, the Republic is well situated for stargazing as it lies near the Equator. This means that planets and the moon can be very high up in the sky and are clearer, he said.

He started sidewalk stargazing shortly after getting his first telescope, setting it up outside the Toa Payoh Public Library.

The reactions he got then were not very positive. "I got dirty looks from the public. They must have been wondering, 'Who is this guy and what is he doing?'"

Even then, if he saw someone looking his way, he would invite them to take a look.

But these sidewalk sessions have since grown. Now, about 10 of his friends set up telescopes - up to twice as tall as the average man and costing between $300 and $10,000 each - for each stargazing session.

Mr Chee, who is single, holds a talk at the Toa Payoh library before each session. The free talks fill up the 70-person capacity hall each time.

Interest in astronomy is growing, he said, pointing out that National Junior College recently opened its own observatory and he is getting more requests to conduct talks.

Mr Chee, whose own collection of telescopes now numbers at least 13, said that it's a magical sight.

"I thought it's something everyone should see. I want to help people do things which they think are impossible," he said.

Banker Chia Kim Yen, 34, who has lived in the area for more than two years, was in the queue to use the telescope when My Paper attended a session last month.

"It's pretty cool that they do this here for free. You don't expect to see Jupiter for free," he said.

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