Foreign workers chatting over murukku in Chinese Garden

From ‘Chinese Garden’s faded glory’, 16 May 2014, article by Lee Jian Xuan, ST

…Once a popular tourist haunt in the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese Garden is seldom promoted as an attraction now and is deserted on most days, save for the odd runner. Earlier this month, its caretaker, JTC Corporation, said it had planned a long list of refurbishment works for Chinese Garden, including architectural repairs and new paint.

Designed by prominent Taiwanese architect Yu Yuen-chen, Chinese Garden was touted as “Singapore’s architectural pride” when it opened in 1975, a phoenix risen from what used to be marshes and swamps. It drew many visitors from near and far, as well as couples taking wedding pictures.

…Chinese Garden, which has no entrance fee on normal days, has turned into a retreat for foreign workers on weekends and public holidays. Some duck below ficus and yellow oleander trees, snapping selfies on their phones. Others laze beside the ponds and lakes, chatting and eating.

Indian shipyard worker Ganapathy Balasubramanian, 30, meets his friend, construction worker Prakash Chellayan, 30, every Sunday to chat over murukku.

In 1978, an Australian tourist wrote to the ST Forum suggesting that there should be a ‘unique trio’ of gardens around of the Jurong Lake area, Chinese, Japanese and an INDIAN garden. Jump to 2014 and it has indeed become a garden for Indian workers, if not eating murukku under some ficus trees then playing cricket on an area that once saw SBC actors like Chen Tianwen suspended on wires in wuxia getup swordfighting and saving Xiang Yun from distress.

Chinese Garden wasn’t warmly welcomed by all Jurong residents when it was initially proposed. One Jurong worker who was unable to get a flat in the area called the tourist attraction a ‘luxury project’, and complained that the money was better spent on housing. Others were worried that they couldn’t afford the entrance fee. In the late seventies, you would still get swindled of $1.20 for two bottles of chrysanthemum tea. Sinophile scholars swooned over its Sung dynasty inspired imperial architecture nonetheless, describing entering the Gardens as being transported into ‘Instant China’.With the number of PRCs among us these days, you don’t have to travel all the way to Jurong to experience the motherland anymore.

When it opened to much fanfare in 1975, the attraction was believed to be the largest classical Chinese garden built that century outside of China. By the 1990’s, it had degraded into a mosquito-breeding, deserted eyesore. Today, there’s nothing more ‘cheena’ about Chinese Garden than the roof design of the MRT named after it, its Twin Towers and Pagoda still resembling the campy set of a Mediacorp period drama, a lacklustre imitation of everything you’ve ever seen in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. You’re more likely to see foreign workers picnicking than old men in majestic robes doing taichi, more people jogging than doing calligraphy, kids engaging in watersports in the Lake than poets drifting about in a lone sampan fanning themselves pensively in the morning mist.

Here are some other facts you didn’t know about the Chinese and Japanese Gardens.

1. The centrepiece of the Garden, the 7 tier pagoda, was once compared to the one at Cheng-Ching Lake, Taiwan. 

2. Japanese Garden is also known as ‘Seiwa-en’, conceived by none other than Dr Goh Keng Swee himself, Seiwa-en meaning Singapore’s (Sei) Japanese (Wa) Garden (En). It also opened 2 years BEFORE Chinese Garden.

3. Entrance fees for the Japanese Gardens in 1973 was 40 cents (adult), 20 Cents (child) and FIFTY CENTS for a CAMERA. Yes, your camera was worth more than a human being. In the 1990’s, this increased to $4.50 per adult.

4. The statue of Confucius, donated to the Chinese Garden by the Taiwanese, was worth $100, 000.

5. A Registry of Marriages branch opened  in 1982, which catered to couples who wanted to have their solemnisations done over the weekend. By 1984, it was gone.

6. In 1981, it rained BULLETS on Jurong Lake, believed to be an accidental machine gun misfiring by a company under the Defence Ministry known as ODE (Ordnance Development and Engineering). Thankfully no one was hurt.

7. There were plans in 1991 to build an UNDERGROUND MUSEUM at Chinese Gardens. Shelved, obviously.

8. The now defunct Tang Dynasty City, a failed theme park located near the Gardens, once had ambitions to build a $500,000 earthquake simulator from Japan. A disastrous venture, this vanity project with its army of robot terracotta warriors cost $100 million to build, opened in 1992 and had closed shop before the end of that decade.

9. The Live Tortoise and Turtle Museum collection features an exotic reptile called the MATA-MATA. I heard the Police need a mascot.

10. Chinese Garden MRT was once called Jurong Lake Station. 

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2 Responses

  1. there’s a community garden project going there now called 2CG. all kinds of throwaways like shoes and an old handbag are used to hold plants. it’s to give an idea of the possibilities of recycling and using a little creativity. part of the project is a padi field! with scarecrow. there’s also a veggie portion. look for this garden behind the turtle museum.

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