Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Light Above Pedra Branca

There is a Light
above a Rock
called Pedra Branca
and I hope it will burn forever bright.

Burning, I hope, not so much a guiding star for sailors, but for the people I belong to: Singaporeans.

Indeed, for me, Horsburgh Lighthouse, stands out not so much as an engineering feat than as a monument; a monument to the people who built it. They were our first dream team ever - a team comprising none other than the Malays, Indians, Chinese and Caucasians. And you know, wrought they did their finest mettle against the 'first test' to build a common light together. It was, as I found out, a task exceedingly difficult and seemingly impossible in so many ways.

With only sail-driven ships, raw human muscles and simplest of wooden rigs, planks and lashings, they transferred and hoisted huge pre-hewn granite blocks (doughnut-shaped sections originating from Pulau Ubin) onto steep treacherous rocks against the rough open seas and getting caught out often in the middle of tempestuous storms tossed by wind and waves, or tormented by the blistering sun otherwise.

However, the most difficult of all is the barrier of mistrust and misunderstanding confronted by the different ethnic groups working together in tight confines for the very first time. Fortunately, the situation managed to resolved unto itself (after some very bitter start); a job had to be done, and it finally got done. The final capping of the finished product must have been a very sweet moment for every hand on deck and rock, I can imagine.

In year 2002, I first learned in detail of the struggle of this first dream team in a neat little booklet entitled "The Horsburgh Lighthouse" by John Hall-Jones. My heart naturally went out to the workers, many of whom did not even know what they were in for and left with no choice marooned on a rock.

John's writing, in particular, left a big gaping void that could otherwise have contributed to our understanding of the workers' predicament and their psychology as a migrant worker looking for a better life or that of a convict worker hoping for a much cherished pardon. It was obviously a book much-ado with Thomson the man and the lighthouse he designed and built. John's characterization of the workers could have been less harsh at times, I felt, had he understood how no one (given a choice) would want to put one's life at risk for a job.

So it was with great personal satisfaction that I finally found (in the Epilogue) the photo and description of a silver farewell testimonial presented to Thomson 'by a group of leading citizens of Singapore' that I felt honoured the sweat and blood of these humble workers themselves, albeit in a very subtle yet respectable manner. We will never know who designed this beautifully intricate epergne, but I bet he certainly felt in his heart (like I did) the injustice of the underdogs and gave them back the credit they deserved.

My Own Epilogue

All this searching came about in 2002 because having been told of stories of indentured workers working the quarries at Pulau Ubin, I visited some of their unmarked graves. I remembered feeling very sad seeing them for the first time. They were graves with no names; unmarked gravestones of poor souls who died alone and whose last thought must have been the home across the seven seas they never got back to. I had made a promise then to write something in their remembrance. This I do here. To the indentured workers and convict labourers, we owe you lots.

In conclusion, whatever false start the first dream team have had, they certainly pulled themselves together quickly to weather the storm and conquered positively with resolution and endurance. They must have learned a lot working together and I believe we can learn a lot from them too. It is more than a lighthouse we inherited; it is a light that will burn forever bright to guide us in our multiracial society today.

Footnote: If we can spend tens of millions obtaining sunken Tang Dynasty Treasures to depict the history of our maritime trade, why not seriously consider repossessing this little silver of burning light for our future generations. I believe, it is presently with the descendants of John Turnbull Thomson in New Zealand.

Other information: Mok Ly Yng on "Horsburgh Lighthouse: 160th Anniversary" (Sat 15 Oct 2011)

Description of the Silver Epergne in the booklet: Before he departed a group of leading citizens of Singapore banded together to present him with a silver testimonial in appreciation of his service to the Settlement. A unique and intricate silver epergne was fashioned by a master of the craft and presented to Thomson on the eve of his departure in August 1853. Significantly it was engraved with etchings of the Pedra Branca rock and the Horsburgh Lighthouse and surrounded with figures to represent the Chinese, Indians and Malays who had worked under him.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tree Felling: The Saddest Sight in CIAG (City In A Garden)

This is one of the most vibrant part of Singapore City - the lively busy junction at Singapore Management University (SMU) where trees gracefully line both Bencoolen Street and Bras Basah Road. This is the 'happening' place - a happy place, I must add - where students, young people and tourists mingle, have a great time with food, museum visits, attend school and churches and going to cinema and open-air concerts with family and friends.

But what do we find here today - 26 August 2011 - eve of our Presidential Election 2011?

SHOCKING - 7 large tree stumps of felled Yellow Flame Trees lined in a death row along Bencoolen Street for the whole world to see!

That's not all. If you are as familiar as I am with trees in Singapore, you will know that 3 more big trees fringing Hotel Rendevous (white building; below photo) have also been cut and cleared of almost all evidence on the opposite side of the street.

It is simply the saddest sight in CIAG (City In A Garden) and it hurts.

Each stump a face of destruction, a real bad education, that immediately bring up images of deforestation, climate change, and - not by a long stretch - a worse possible counter- advertisement for CIAG's promotion of urban greenery and ecology. Bencoolen Street is so treeless, ugly and hot now.

But what awaits the fate of the remaining trees fringing Plaza By The Park along Bras Basah Road?

Will they be felled too?

The common man in the street needs some answers. It hurts, really hurt to the core! Why, o why did we cut these lovely benign trees that is so much a part of everything beautiful here? WHY? : (

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Mangrove Record: Rhizophora x lamarckii

20 July 2011: Can you imagine the excitement and elation I felt on discovering a mature Rhizophora x lamarckii in Pulau Ubin - a new mangrove record for Singapore? I was grinning with joy the whole day and went to bed so very happy that night. Sometimes, somehow, I cannot help but think I live a very charmed life indeed! [Haha] But profoundly though, I do feel quietly affirmed that my calling which I believe I have is real.

So as you can also imagine, my nature-loving friends were equally happy for me too. When I told them that R. x lamarckii is a natural hybrid of R. apiculata and R. stylosa, they were very intrigued and wanted to know more.

Here it is then, my friends - on your request - some simple diagnostic features of R. x lamarckii you can remember and use in the field. Happy exploring!!

A closer look at Rhizophora x lamarckii: flowering specimen for the herbarium (below).

It was the stalk of the inflorescence (the peduncle) which blew me away the instant I laid eyes on the tree. The length of the stalk is so much shorter than R. stylosa and R. mucronata, but longer than R. apiculata! Fallen flowers at the base of the tree told me much more...

Compare the stalks of the inflorescences (peduncles) of R. apiculata, R. x lamarckii, R. stylosa and R. mucronata (from left to right).

Compare the style and sepal width of the following 4 flowers: Differences and similarities described below.

Rhizophora apiculata
(below): style very short - less than 1mm long.

Rhizophora mucronata (below): style sharply pointed; appearing like a conical tunic with ovary.

Rhizophora stylosa (below): style long; sepal width narrow to lanceolate like those of R. mucronata.

Rhizophora x lamarckii (below): style long like R. stylosa; sepal width broad like R. apiculata.

The density of the dots on the underside of mature leaves is markedly different for R. stylosa (left) and R. x lamarckii (centre) and R. apiculata (right); the last two being similarly and densely dotted though faint to see. R. stylosa, on the other hand, is similarly and spaciously dotted like R. mucronata (not shown here).

The claw of R. x lamarckii (located at the distal end of the sepal) is prominently sharper to the touch than R. stylosa. The claws of R. apiculata and R. mucronata on the other hand are rounded instead.

A dried petal of R. x lamarckii turns brown; margin white hairy.

A good botanical drawing (shown in part below) of R. x lamarckii can be found in The Botany of Mangroves (by P.B. Tomlinson, The University of Cambridge,1986 ). Besides other features, the sharp claw of the sepal, hairy petals, bi-lobed stigma and long style are very well illustrated.

R. x lamarckii is known to be vegetatively robust and vigorous. Our specimen is multi-stemmed and has prodigious flying buttresses and aerial roots bearing down in a messy tangle from up to 3m above.

Bark rough and shallowly cracked. The biggest of the 5 major trunks measured 47cm girth.

It lives in the soft substrate at the uppermost reach of a long snaking tidal creek.

At about 12m tall, it is already towering a head above the surrounding trees.

Detailed description and adequate photos of R. x lamarckii can be found in Australia's Mangroves by Norman C. Duke, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 2006. This hybrid can produce hypocotyl (seedlings) but fruit rarely develop beyond the immature fruit stage.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Coralline Record in Singapore Botanic Gardens

It is the most unusual place to find corals - Singapore Botanic Gardens. Coralline boulders of all shapes and sizes, intact or fragmented, line the garden paths and flower beds even today. As is evident to me at least, these were used as decorative borders long ago at the infancy of the garden during the colonial days. Their numbers and the impressive size of some of these marine relics easily suggest a time when our island is surrounded by a most spectacular 'garden in the sea' brimming to the shores with livid corals of all sorts and harvested as readily available material for such purposes. I have found them similarly employed in Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Waterloo Street.

Such grand visions of pristine seas may be lost forever but if one were to be interested in the study of corals in Singapore waters, I think a visit to Singapore Botanic Gardens is a most invaluable trip to the past. Who knows, a never-before recorded taxa might be found amongst these relics. Taken at the microscopic level of enquiry, one might even find traces of micro-fauna entombed within the recesses of their silent calcareous walls. Her coralline record could certainly hold many secrets waiting your discovery.

For a start, you may want to venture down to Area G [photo above] where most of the corals can be found. It is nestled somewhere between Swan Lake and the car park of Ginger Garden. Two or three narrow stairways will lead you down to a lower labyrinth of narrower pathways bounded by relatively high walls of corals resembling limestone gullies where even the enigmatic single-leafed herb Monophyllaea horsfieldii (a limestone specialist) grows in the company of mosses lush and plentiful. [plant photos right below]

coral5coral6coral7coral8Monophyllaea horsfieldii plants

Monophyllaea horsfieldii flowers

Monophyllaea horsfieldii inflorescense

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Prismatomeris glabra: A shrub called Haji Samat

In Singapore it is a rare jewel sparkling white in the shadows as an understorey shrub of the great rain forest known to aborigines and remote kampong folks as a powerful aphrodisiac. It has very thin and greenish secondary veins so delicately etched as to appear absorbed into the lamina of the leaf.

Flowers are exquisitely scented and glossy; the petals, five to six, discreetly folded.

The fruits ripens purple and should easily fool you into thinking it a Memecylon species.

Alas, it is not. The single seed is gloved on one side and a coffee bean it is... Rubiaceae! : )

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Red-Nosed Cicada and Glochidion brunneum

I never knew Glochidion brunneum as a host tree for the Red-Nosed Cicada. Today I found that out most serendipitously. A pair of mating Red-nosed Cicada (Huechys sanguinea) fell off the lower branch I was examining. I promptly scooped them up from the ground with a fallen leaf, and before restoring them onto a leafy twig, I took liberty of documenting their mating.

Close-up of copulatory organs.

The pair continued their mating up on the tree.

There were many others on the tree. Some were clearly seen sucking sap from the tree, especially the younger branches.

April must be their season for emergence into adulthood. I saw one halfway getting out of its nymphal coat. No sooner do they emerge, they sing, eat, and mate - all under the canopy of a lovely providential tree named Glochidion brunneum. : )