It is early on a Sunday morning that I find myself in the historic heart of Singapore, a hilltop that has, at various times over the past seven centuries, been home to Malay Kings, British colonial governors, and several armies. Fort Canning Park is just coming to life, with Tai Chi enthusiasts gracefully going through their morning ritual and a fencing class occupying another prime piece of parkland, but it is the sound coming from one of the Park’s most important landmarks that has me intrigued. Inside the Fort Gate someone is singing opera.
When I go to investigate, I find an elderly Chinese man passionately throwing himself into La Traviata, like Violetta herself is dying of consumption on a bench beside him. Alfonso isn’t busking or seeking an audience, he’s just singing for himself. And the stone monument, it seems, is providing just the right acoustics for his rendition of Verdi.
The Fort Gate was once part of Singapore’s fortifications, built in the 1860s by the British, to protect the colony from attack and to offer European residents a refuge in case the local population revolted. For the next hundred years Fort Canning was used by the military. In 1936 the British built an underground command centre for operations in the Far East. The Battle Box, as it became known, was the nerve centre for the defence of Singapore in the Second World War. And it was in this bunker that Lieutenant General Percival made the decision to surrender to the Japanese. The site was then taken over by the Japanese military. It returned to the British Malay Command after the war and was later occupied by Singapore’s armed forces. Now, the 28-room Battle Box is a museum, that recreates the fall of Singapore on the morning of February 15th 1942. The bunker is part of a sprawling green history lesson – right slap, bang in the middle of the city.
The historic precinct is the site for music festivals, open-air theatre, weddings and parties. And that’s why I’m in the park. I am helping to clean up after a wedding party for my brother and new sister-in-law, the previous night – wearing a rubber glove on one hand and carrying a plastic bag in the other. I take a break from my chores to get a better look at the opera singer. But as soon as I slip through the archway of Fort Gate, I disturb Alfonso. He stops mid song, assesses my rubber glove and bag and launches into a lengthy oratory on the most efficient tools for rubbish collection. In his view I would be significantly better off if I invested in some long handled tongs. I am tempted to explain that I am not about to enter the business professionally, and that I’m just helping out for the morning, but by then he has returned to La Traviata. Singaporeans certainly use their parks in some surprising ways.
The country has long taken its green space seriously. The founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, envisaged Singapore as a Garden City. Now the government is set on a more ambitious course, transforming the island state into a City in a Garden. The country boasts 300 parks. The most impressive of all has just opened – a 101 hectare green space that features enormous flower domes and a towering artificial woodland. If anything is going to tempt tourists out of Singapore’s five star hotels and air-conditioned shopping malls it will be this ultra-modern Garden by the Bay.
But for visitors with an interest in the past, Fort Canning Park is a peaceful diversion from the crowds on Orchard Road and a timeline of Singapore’s history. Archeologists have uncovered thousands of artifacts from the 14th century Malay royal palace that once occupied the site. A gold armlet was among the treasures and is now in the National Museum of Singapore, which backs onto Fort Canning Park. The main excavation site has also been preserved for visitors.
When the Malay rulers abandoned the hilltop at Fort Canning, the palace was reclaimed by the jungle, and it wasn’t until British statesman, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819, that the forbidden hill, as the Malays called it, was settled once again. Raffles, impressed by the view from the hilltop, built his bungalow here and established Singapore’s first botanical garden. Fort Canning’s Spice Garden is a tribute to Raffles’ original garden, which featured nutmeg and cloves – the staples of the spice trade.
The gardens, the towering rain trees, epiphytes and colonial monuments of Fort Canning Park will never compete with the likes of the Garden by the Bay, but in a city that is always looking to the future, Fort Canning is a beautifully preserved reminder of the past.