Friday, September 21, 2012

HortPark in Singapore - a great idea to take after

Water garden at the entrance to the HortPark in Singapore. Over 600 000 visitors come here to learn about gardening and to see what over 40 local garden designers and 80 other related entrepreneurs can offer.

I just made a brief visit to the HortPark on Hyderabad Road in western Singapore, after having read about it in many sources from foreign articles to local gardening sites and magazines. Despite all the information, I didn't quite know what to expect, as I've never seen this kind of a "gardening hub" before. HortPark is part of the National Parks organisation here, but at the same time, it is a networking hub for local entrepreneurs working with things related to gardens and gardening, from designers to installation, maintenance and even retail.

Knowledge and creativity mingling with ideas for gardening and recycling - all of the designs and products above are available from private entrepreneurs who are participating in the HortPark. Hanging plants and terrarium making courses seem to be very popular for the moment, just as indoor green walls.

It was a hot midday when I popped by and the park was almost empty, besides some friendly employees and gardeners, and a couple of school classes strolling through the vegetable gardens with their heads protected from the stinging sun by large hats. In the stylish on-site restaurant fittingly called the Vineyard, young waiters dressed in black carried misty wineglasses to the patrons much more advanced in their years.

Many companies provide know-how and materials for green roofs and walls; here, green wall displays from eight different companies, and roofs by three others. Seminars and lessons are offered in the related technigues and on how to take care of them afterwards.

I hadn't booked neither a tour nor a guide, but I enjoyed much of what I saw. The design of both the park the buildings were refreshingly modern, with straight clean angels meeting elements composed of organic lines - not surprisingly, it has won several international architectural awards since its opening in 2008. State-of-the-art meeting venues mingled with quirky display gardens, retail displays selling everything from stylish pots to trendy terrariums and beyond.

Kitchen and community gardens are a big part of the HortPark; the National Parks Board wants to promote gardening as a hobby and a lifestyle choice. Believe it or not, vegetable gardening is very popular here and Community Clubs offer courses on kitchen gardening all around the busy island. Above left, beanpole tipis offer shade in the glaring sun, and right, a school class is learning about vegetable gardens.

Two designer gardens and two gardens planted by local community clubs - guess which are which.

While I visited, the whole place felt a bit empty, and some of designers seemed to be a bit too busy to keep up their display gardens. I still loved the whole idea of HortPark. It is rare to see this kind of happy combination of the governmental and the commercial, both co-habiting in the same park and feeding each other with ideas and probably even knowledge, and at the same time, offering the public an excellent opportunity to learn about gardening, be inspired by new ideas and even find who can provide the services or goods that are desired. Of course, Singapore's steady and tropical climate offers unique setting for year-around displays, which is difficult to replicate in colder climates. But still, I would love to see a similar project for example in Scandinavia, with the state stepping in with resources for the framework, and the garden designers and builders providing the fireworks with their creativity and knowledge. And as a customer, I would definitely love a well-designed park to stroll in and take in all the new ideas on offer. Ten points to Singapore's National Parks Board.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A dragon in a pottery jungle, endangered

The mouth of the dragon; this is the fire-box and it has an altar on the top. Before every firing, offerings of three kinds of living creatures -animals or seafood and wine and tea - are offered to the kiln god to ensure success.

A self-confessed pottery addict as I am, my heart jumped when I read that a two Dragon Kilns still exist in the outskirts of western Singapore. Sadly, both of them are now threatened by a huge new "tech city" nearby, so I decided to make a quick visit there, just in case. Singaporeans are quite effective at work, and that is not always positive - at least when it comes to this kind of development projects. 

Entrance to the dragon's belly... up to 5 000 items can be loaded in for a single firing.

Inside the dragon kiln; temperatures reach 1200 C when fired up, and the whole process of firing up and then cooling down the kiln takes about one week.

Salt-glazed tea cups made by local potters; salt is thrown into the warm kiln and it forms random glazing on the vessels.

Anyhow, after a serpentine ride through the dusty building site, I arrived to the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle - Thow Kwang translating to "Pottery and Prosperity" - and jumped out from my taxi on a large field of randomly arranged pots in all imaginable sizes. The ramshackle sheds that house the huge kiln and the dusty, sprawling shop used to be surrounded by a lush jungle area complete with a potter's hut and a pond, but were now hemmed in by tall green plastic fences, with bulldozers behind razing their way through the vegetation making way for still another business development. Oh, to have a magic wand that stops this kind of madness from happening - when do  decision makers learn the value of our heritage?

The entrance - complete with a couple of Shishis - to the shop and pottery making area, giving a taste for things to come.

Now, this is my kind of a display shelf - just look at the urns and bowls bedecked with gourds, flowers and leaves. Amazing. I especially loved the urn with a lid in the lower right corner, such a soft form and color, even if it doesn't show properly in the picture.

The present owners hold pottery courses and other events in this lovely room facing the soon extinct jungle. 

An inspiring environment for making ceramics - I immediately felt like throwing a pot even if I don't know how.  

On arrival, I was greeted by the actual dragon with its mouth formed by a huge firing box facing towards the entrance. The kiln reaches a monumental 37 meters up a hill and the 'tail' of the dragon finishes off the structure towards what just recently used to be a jungle. When fired, smoke rises from the mouth and 17 stoke holes along the hill, making the kiln resemble a furious, fire-spitting dragon.

Inside the huge, sprawling shop - even chairman Mao rises his hand for a greeting in front of the variety of ceramics on offer.

A selection of gods and holy men - in all imaginable styles and colors. Just pick your favorite!

Ginger jars, garden stools and everything between... Those large blue and white, handpainted ceramic tiles hanging from the roof are in huge risk of decorating my bathroom, sometime & somewhere.

Dragon kilns originated in Chine some three millenniums ago and the technique of building and using them was bought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. There used to be ten of them on the island, all producing pots and other household items. Another important product was latex collecting cups for the rubber industry that was economically very important for the area. Demand for these items dried up in the 1970s and 80s when rubber was replaced by plastic and cheaper household imports from China flooded the market, so most of the kilns closed down. Only two remain, Thow Kwang and Guat Huan, and both are now used by local clay artists, but even they get fired quite seldom as the firing process is very long and labor intensive. Also, it takes time to accumulate enough works to make it worth the process - over 5 000 items can be fitted in the dragons belly at one single firing.

A quiet altar behind the shop, facing the jungle...

... with a jovial Buddha and a fellow wise man, both seemingly unaware of their uncertain future.

Pots and more pots, decomposing behind the shop and kiln; I forgot to ask what these vessels were, maybe latex cups from the past?

Today, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle is still owned by the Tan family who originally built the kiln in the 1940s. Pottery and ceramics sold in the shop comes mainly from China - some new, some machine made, some hand painted, some antique - in a great variety of styles. I had planned to spend only an hour here, but ended up strolling the shady, labyrinthine pathways of the shop for almost three, finding new things to attract my attention behind every turn. This is definitely no place for strictly minimalistic types, but certainly a feast for those who enjoy the diversity of the Chinese aesthetics - a lush, visual jungle indeed. My only wish is that the local authorities wake up before it is too late, and that the dragon will be left alive together with its sibling nearby.

A plate from the selection of antiques - with a wonderfully whimsical pattern of ruffled little birds sitting by a cherry tree.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You know you are in the tropics when...

A banana bonsai (Musa sp.)- about half a meter high, and quite cute. No fruit in sight, though... 

bonsais come in the genus Musa... as in the Singapore Botanic Gardens collection. I've never encountered one before, but then, I can't really claim to be a bonsai or penjing expert either. This is an enjoyable little collection in a slightly too industrial pavilion (I think the bonsais looked a bit lonely on their perches), but well worth spending a while in.

The bonsai theater, or pavilion - and even if Singapore is very safe, it was guarded by many cameras, just in case...

A mini Chinese Banyan (Ficus macrocarpa); what a lovely tangle of air roots on a plate.

Wild water plum 'Sui Mai' (Wrightia religiosa) like a little island with huge trees.

And another tiered little Wrightia. I can't stand those white plastic signs, they stick in your eyes however much you try to ignore them.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gatekeepers of the Lion City

What a lovely collar - I'm sure it adds to the protective power of this noble animal. This is the female lion, as they always hold a cub under their front paw (and for good feng shui, are placed on the left side gate when looking towards the house).

There's no shortage of lions around in Singapore, even if no such animals probably have ever lived outside the zoo on the island. It is probably impossible to walk 100 meter without spotting a lion - they come in all thinkable sizes, materials and colours and can be found on gateposts, front yards and parks or pretty much anywhere where you can install a sculpture or a decorative figure. Of course, lion symbolizes courage, strength and excellence so it has have been extremely common both in heraldry and in religious and profane imagery overall the world for thousands of years (it was adopted even in the coat of arms of my home country Finland in a time no-one on those northern latitudes had never seen the animal neither alive nor dead). But why lions, when tigers - another eastern symbol for power and strength - were more than desirably abundant on these tropical areas in the olden days?
Lion guardians at the gateposts of the Tanjong Katong area. In west, they have been called Foo/Fu dogs or sometimes Foo/Fu lions - the Chinese never refer to them as dogs. One of my favorites is the green glazed one on the lower left, a female lion with a cub under its left front paw - the male lion rests its right paw on a globe depicting the world.

As the story goes, an Indonesian prince called Sang Nila Utama landed with his ship on the island sometime in the 13th century. The first thing he saw here was what he thought a lion running at a great speed. A great omen, thought the prince, and decided to name the place Singapura, a Malay name deriving from sanskrit words singa meaning lion and ore meaning city. (I just wonder what the city would have been called if his eyesight would have been better?)

But well-suited for a Lion City as these gatekeepers are, they actually don't have anything to do with the name of the city. Instead, they are part of a nearly two thousand old Chinese tradition of placing guardian lions called "Shishis" by the entrance because of the powerful protective benefits they are believed to carry (in west, these figures are often called foo or fu dogs, even if the Chinese never refer to them as dogs). From the imperial palaces, temples and tombs of the Han dynasty, they have followed Chinese emigrants to pretty much all continents, and can today be found protecting buildings of all kinds from restaurants in San Francisco to houses of the wealthy and poor in Singapore and beyond. And tigers - despite missing out on naming the island and then having hunted to extinction, some lovely examples can luckily still be spotted in the old temples here.

Tigers are much harder to spot in Singapore, but not completely extinct - here the Tiger Lord at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple on Balestier Road. He (or it?) is believed to help people who seek redress from injustices.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Things that make me go ouch - reflexology paths in Singapore

Reflexology path in Singapore Botanic Gardens.

I love how the parks and gardens of Singapore are not only meant to be looked at, but to be used. One typical garden feature here is the reflexology path found in many public parks and on the grounds of large housing estates. These paths take many forms; winding pathways are the most common, but I've seen circles, irregular patches formed as stepping stones and even installations looking like teardrops or commas. They are constructed of small pebbles ranging from flat to pointed and round to oblong, all of them embedded in concrete in carefully laid out decorative patterns.

Place for my daily reflexology fix - Katong Park in the east coast of Singapore.

The purpose of these paths is to stimulate pressure points in the feet; reflexology teaches that the feet, hands and ears contain several reflex points that correspond to other parts of the body. By stimulating these points by massage or by walking on paths like these, we are supposed to gain beneficial effects on our overall health in the corresponding body parts. Of course, reflexology has not been proved scientifically valid or effective (but then, not many practices hailing from other than Western countries and traditions have been...), but it is completely mainstream in Asia and has a large following even some Scandinavian countries. And in Seattle where I lived previously, a couple of reflexology paths were installed quite recently.

Lately, I've become addicted to the one in Katong park above. When I go there, I feel an immediate need to kick off my sandals and walk on the little stones to earn the invigorating feeling they generate in my legs, feet and the rest of the body, despite that fact that it actually is quite painful to do so. I'm not sure if I've gained any other major health effects yet, but I'll let you know if I notice any improvements. And I'm actually already contemplating of including a reflexology path in my garden in Sweden - I just need to figure out how to keep the concrete from cracking in winter frosts, obviously a problem that Singaporean gardeners never need to encounter.

Pebble patterns from Meyer Road park, Katong park and Singapore Botanic Gardens. The stonework reminds me of Italian and French gardens, even if the purpose of it is completely different.

Reflexology path leading to the bamboo grove in Singapore Botanic Gardens.