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Exploring

The great thing about being on holiday is that I finally found time to venture future north of Singapore, where the Singapore Zoo is in. I love animals, and this rainforest zoo is definitely one of the best things about Singapore for me. My mom was a university professor in zoology (among other subjects), and I remember the textbook she used, Integrated Principles of Zoology (the edition with the deer and the blue sky on the cover). Here are some of my favorites:

I adore big cats, so this white tiger got a lot of visits from me.

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I love elephants as well, and the zoo had a few of them. I learned to distinguish the species based on their ears.

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They also had an elephant art school of a sort. This is a painting by an elephant:

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I was lucky to spot an orangutan get into a sack and roll down as a form of play:

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I was expecting these synchronized marmosets to break into a Broadway song:

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Chimpanzees are fascinating to watch—they’re so smart.

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And here’s a Malayan sun bear—the smallest bear in the world, and is also nicknamed the “honey bear”.

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And finally, one of my favorite animals in the world: a tapir! I saw one previously, in Singapore’s Night Safari which is nearby.

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The Holiday Hackathon is an exploration/discovery project of me spending my last couple of weeks in Singapore. I just finished an art/science residency, and I’m hoping that asking questions and going to new places will help me figure out that next step/project. 

 

The Holiday Hackathon is an excellent excuse to do all the touristy things in Singapore I’ve always wanted to do but never had the time. Today was a trip to Jurong Bird Park, Asia’s largest aviary.

I had a great afternoon surrounded by beautiful birds and three iguanas sunning themselves. I learned new things—a group of pelicans is a squadron, ostrich only have two toes, scarlet ibises get their color from the carotene in their diet, etc.

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I love penguins, but I do wonder about animals kept in climates obviously not meant for them. This isn’t the first time; in Seoul’s Children’s Zoo, I saw a polar bear and a camel. But if their original habitats are disappearing, is it justifiable that they’re here, fed and watered at least? People who may never get a chance to go to polar regions only have places like these to go to. And maybe it would inspire some kids to be conservationists. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I just hope these animals are happy.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

I loved seeing birds I didn’t know existed, such as a cassowary, which is a descendant from the dinosaurs. (Or as I like to call it, a rainbow turkey.) This one was a bit shy. Or perhaps because it was a really hot afternoon and needed the shade.

My first cassowary!

My first cassowary!

Another bird I had no idea existed. Here is a rare shoebill from Sudan. There was only a fence between it and me. It did not look happy to see me. Or did it?

A rare shoebill.

A rare shoebill.

And for the heck of it, I tracked my trail around the park when I was: A. In the tram, and B. Walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Obviously, the latter made me look at more things, but by how much? The tram ride was about 15 minutes and walking and mindful looking took me about two hours, walking more than twice the distance the tram covered. The experience designer in me is taking notes.

The Holiday Hackathon is an exploration/discovery project of me spending my last couple of weeks in Singapore. I just finished an art/science residency, and I’m hoping that asking questions and going to new places will help me figure out that next step/project. 

 

Today, I headed out to Bukit Brown, a Chinese cemetery here in Singapore that is going to be torn down to make way for a road. It is the first Chinese cemetery in colonial Singapore—lots of pioneers are buried here. It has been listed as at risk site on the 2014 World Monuments Watch.

I really hope I never have to do this to any of my dead relatives.

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It is such a lovely cemetery. I like coming across the ones under huge trees. It was a very peaceful oasis, surrounded by a country club and homes for rich people.

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There were many graves where I saw recent offerings of food, as though an apology to those who were to be exhumed. The unclaimed ones, I read on the signs, were to be cremated and the ashes cast into the sea.

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I loved these pinwheels in this graveyard.

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There is something about walking that untangles my thoughts and gives me clarity. Such a beautiful place! Go see it before it’s gone.

Due to strange circumstances in the past 24 hours, my flight tonight from Singapore has been moved to December 31. After the last few weeks of being on full throttle—giving talks, doing photo and video shoots, running around Singapore getting materials, storyboarding, prototyping, packing, and vainly figuring out what my next step is—I just hit the brakes.

I am quite relieved. No, excited! My exhaustion from this residency was from a managerial standpoint, as this was project where I had a lot of collaborators. This was unlike the last one, where the stress was more from physical sources: I still can’t believe I hiked more than 43 mountains in less than 2 months. Still, in both cases, exhaustion bordered on nausea. But hey, I regret nothing.

I can’t believe it—two weeks of hermetic silence, completing The Apocalypse Project and prototyping new ones while avoiding the holiday rush. Now this is my version of a holiday miracle. To make this retreat a bit more fun, I will try to see this as the Great Holiday Hackathon. Unlike most hackathons, I’m still not sure what I’ll have in the end. My goal is to do certain tasks all over Singapore, asking specific questions or turning some urban expeditions into a photographic data gathering session of a sort. I want to know some things I’ve been mildly curious about in the past months I’ve lived here. Perhaps in this short time of experimentation, I will be able to see what I’m supposed to do afterwards.

So for Holiday Hackathon Day One, I wanted to ask the question, What happens when you go through all of the subway stops in Singapore’s Circle Line?

The Circle Line of Singapore MRT comprises 28 stations. I started at Harbourfront (on the lower left) and went clockwise. Sadly, GPS doesn’t work at this underground level, so the only data I have is the time of the journey. It’s not a complete circle, so to get back to Harbourfront, I got off (well, “alighted” as they say here) at Dhoby Ghaut station and transferred to the North East line (the purple line), riding 4 stations to go back to my original point. I killed time by reading a book. You can see my route via the black dots:

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So, 32 stations, 0 displacement, and a few dozen pages later,  I learned that this journey takes 1 hour and 22 minutes, and that it costs 0.78 cents. I’m sure my transit card doesn’t know I rode all those—I imagine I’d be charged the same if I accidentally entered the station and left it again, thinking it was a mistake.

I have no clue when this information will be useful, but I was just itching to know.

This past Hari Raya Haji, a holiday in Singapore, I went to the Night Safari with a couple of friends. I’m always interested in how cities look at conservation, which to me has the tension of having flora and fauna thrive in their natural habitat and having humans be a non-intrusive witness to them in the hopes that they will be inspired to care for these organisms.

No flash allowed, people! But thanks to the safari’s simulated moonlight, I was able to take some photos.

Here’s a pride of lions (siblings, I’m told). I love big cats!
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An otter!

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Birds hanging out.

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This photo is a bit blurry, but it’s all I have left of my first glimpse of a Malayan tapir. What a beautiful creature!

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Durian mooncake. I kid you not. This was a first for me, courtesy of the good people of the Future Cities Lab. It was actually quite good, even though I think durian deserves to be in a whole other food group by itself.

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Last night I was in Chinatown and right on cue, a small lantern parade began right outside the Buddhist temple, led by traditional lion and dragon dances.

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This was the second lion/dragon dance for me this year. (The first was the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul back in June.) I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these things. Happy Miid-Autumn Festival, one and all!

Seoul43 has given me a lot of moments to reflect on the impact of humanity on nature. This, of course, was not my initial intention. I wanted to climb all these mountains as a personal challenge. A city with mountains—how wonderful! I still believe it is one of the reasons that I found Seoul to be a clean city, compared to the other capitals I have been to. Before Korea, I had hiked only one mountain in the Philippines. It was a disastrous and traumatic experience—I nearly fell off of the peak, slipped many times on our descent, and slowed everyone down. I was, in chemistry terms, our group’s limiting reagent.

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My second intention was to get people to share my experience. This is why I brought the soil from these mountains so that people can plant with them and then bring them back. “Borrowing” instead of “taking” the soil was an important part. It has always been my view that no one is exempt from environmental responsibility, artists/scientists/explorers/designers included. The tasks I asked people to do were also deliberately chosen. I wanted to ensure that this project had some positive environmental and cultural impact.

What I didn’t expect, aside from the extreme fatigue, were my unique experiences for each mountain. Many pushed me to my limits, some nearly killed me, others were places I found so fascinating that I want to revisit them. A number disappointed me for their smallness (This is it? Really?) while others made me ask a lot of questions.

As these are mountains in a bustling capital, one thing I found consistent about them was human activity. If Seoul’s mountains were a system that ensured the coexistence of nature and humanity, then it was determined by these parts:

First, there were the modern city officials, or whoever governing bodies that mandated which trails should be open to the public and what was allowed to be done. They were the ones who permitted the landscaping and gardening of these mountains, who added trails, tennis courts, exercise machines, trail signs, and other things that make them “usable” to the public.

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Second, there were the citizens and tourists, both young and old, who use these mountains everyday. Hiking is an everyday activity for many Seoulites. Although I always hiked alone (which was a stupid idea, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come with me), I was never really alone—there were always groups of ajusshi, ajumma, or young people who were also on the trails and giving me a hand. For the smaller mountains that served as neighborhood parks, it was the residents’ way of getting away from urban noise. Indeed, I could not help but think of these mountains as refuge in a city whose aging population is affected greatly by Korea’s rapid change.

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Finally, and no less importantly, are the people from Seoul’s past—the historical figures who added fortresses, cemeteries, and many a Buddhist temple to these mountains, turning them into rich canvasses that illustrate a city’s past and provide interesting questions as to how they fit into contemporary culture.

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The historical and cultural value that these manmade structures add undoubtedly “elevates” the status of a  mountain to something more than just a park. The exercise machines and other sports amenities added in recent years add utilitarian value for the citizens who make physical fitness a priority. These make me pause to think, because as a naturalist, one would balk at mankind altering nature, and yet, adding something of historical and utilitarian value perhaps encourages the city to preserve it better.

Because Korea is a very mountainous country and one that rapidly urbanized, I observed that: 1) Many mountains that used to be bigger have been “broken” into smaller ones because of apartment buildings, schools, etc. that found their homes in the lower areas, and 2) Some mountains seem to have all but disappeared because the buildings were right on top of them. Is it alright to do this to make room for city dwellers and businesses, as the country has so many? Indeed, as the official list I obtained from Korea’s Forest Service dates back to 2006-2007, I think that 43 will not be the number once they review the list once more. It will be interesting to see how the face of a city changes and how modernization affects these natural structures that are as old as time.

Originally posted on the Seoul43 site.

As I recover from the flu, allow me a bit of hallucinatory storytelling from the highly entertaining 2013 Singapore Kite Festival last week.

Once upon a time, there was a yellow smiley faced kite named Jack.
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He liked to fly.

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So off he went. Doot doot!

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He flew to the city, where there were very tall buildings. Woo!

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He met a lot of friends of different sizes…

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…shapes, and colors.

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One day, Jack was recruited by the Penguin…

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…who worked for Kung Fu Panda…

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They wanted him to join their kite army to go against a great villain, who wanted to take over the skies.

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Jack said yes, so off they went.

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Jack was scared and excited at the mission. They patrolled the skies in search of the great villain.

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Then finally, Captain Squid screeched, “Chaargggee!!!” 

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Sure enough, Spiderman was just around the corner.

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And the kite wars began.

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It raged for two hours, and finally it stopped. And they won.

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Hurray.

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Afterwards, Jack went off on his own.

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And met a girl.

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They dated and lived happily ever after.

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And made kite babies.

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The end.

Now THIS. This scene pretty much captures the contrasts I consistently find in Singapore. In Korea, most contrasts I saw were those of time—a centuries-old fortress co-existing with modern facilities, for example. In Singapore, what I find are contrasts of culture, such as this one. A cosplayer is doing a photo shoot on the left, while there is what I presume to be a class happening on the right.

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I kept my distance and tried not to disturb them too much, but I was floored at what I was seeing.

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I love seeing these different modes of traditional dress, especially since I don’t recall seeing much of these particular ones in Seoul, Manila, and Barcelona. I’m sure I’ve seen these in New York, but not as much as Singapore.

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I had to go up to this guy and tell him how amazing I think he looked.

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Oh, I do hope each field trip is a feast for the eyes.