Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Singapore is green.
Plants we from colder zones call “exotic” grow here in almost surreal profusion. They are giant, thriving avatars of plants difficult to grow even as houseplants in upstate New York. These large, healthy lush plants bubble off balconies of HDB flats. They mark out outdoor dining places. They line the PIE (Pan Island Expressway).
Even the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Building at NTU, where I work, has an open air atrium. Every single floor sports pots of orchids, chillis, dieffenbachia. I see both faculty and cleaning people watering the plants and turning them so they grow evenly.
In the tropics and the rainforest, plant life is sped up. You can see the plants grow.
We decided we needed some plants for our apartment since it was the Lunar New Year. Well, to be perfectly honest, our apartment is rather sparsely furnished (our voices echo in it). Our balcony felt a bit empty and sterile. We thought that plants might mitigate the institutional feel of the place. We went to a wet market in the neighborhood.
The wet market at 502 Boon Lay in the west end of the island is huge. Stalls crowded with light cotton shirts, plastic buckets, flip flops, rambutans, pineapples, durian, mee (noodles), pharmacies, fresh fish like shrimp and sea bass, mutton, gai lan, kang kong, snake around beneath the HDBs. Hawker stalls make roti prata, kway teow, nasi padang, mee goreng. The smells of chillis (so ubiquitous in Singapore they are for all intents and purposes the national mascot) and soy sauce abound. Several of the stalls sell plants—orchids, ferns, palms, chilli padis, lucky bamboo, star fruit, and of course, the tall plants sporting oranges, the symbol of prosperity.
This time of year, the two week Lunar New Year which launched on last Sunday, Singapore is also red. It is the Year of the Tiger. Red is happiness. Red is good luck. Red is tradition. To celebrate the Lunar New Year, Singaporeans buy plants for their flats and for their balconies. They hang red hong bao, (little red envelopes filled with money in multiples of 8 that adults give to children and single people) red pipecleaners, and red tassles from the plants.
Madame Lim, who sells organically grown plants at the Boon Lay wet market, told us that the best Lunar New Year plants come from Malaysia and not China. Malaysia, she said, is tropical like Singapore—sunny, hot, humid, monsoons. China is more temperate. She said the orange trees from China look good for two weeks--and then people toss them. We bought a duat selmat tree instead. Madame Lim said that if it grew too fast on our balcony, just trim it down and coax it to grow in a new direction. It will adapt, she said, if we listen to it.
A week later, we took a cab out to Sungei Tengah in the northwest, one of six agrotechnology parks in Singapore, to buy more plants directly from the growers. At Prince’s, a famous garden center, one of the salesmen approached us to give us a tour of the plants. I suspect he felt a bit sorry for us—we were the only ex-pats (code word for white foreigners) there, and we were clearly overwhelmed by the football field of rainforest plants. We didn’t know where to begin.
Like Madame Lim, he warned us that plants not grown on the Malaysian Peninsula or in Singapore would not thrive here. He said we should wash the leaves with milk to make them shine. “If you touch your plants on your balcony everyday”, he shared “you will be more in touch with nature—and you will understand your plant , where it should live, in shade or sun.”
At Evershine, next door, we bought a large palm tree with crinkled leaves, a plant with leaves veined like a skeleton, a large succulent with many stems unfurling, and several pots of orchids over three feet tall. Orchids are one of my favorite flowers. They are incredibly expensive in upstate New York--and very difficult to grow. Mine bloomed once. Here, orchid plants have four or five stems of flowers and bloom constantly. The orchids cost $12 Sing, or about $8 USD.
We asked the Evershine gardener how much to water the plants—everyday he said, sometimes twice a day. “You will know,” he observed, “just listen to your plant and see if it is happy where it is. If it is not happy, move it.”
The word “green” around the globe has transformed from a color to a one-stop, one-word branding of sustainability . “Green” encompasses everything from bringing your own bag to upscale expat grocery stores like Cold Storage, using public transportation (Singapore's MRT is one of the cleanest , cheapest and most efficient systems in the world), not littering, and cleaning up standing water and leaves that might carry dengue fever.
But perhaps “green” covers up much more complex micro-ecologies like those in Malaysia and Singapore with a large, amorphous, overly universalized, easily coopted word.
In Singapore, a densely populated global entrepot crammed with postmodern corporate skyscrapers, elaborate condos, and HDB flats, the profusion of so-called “tropical” plants (well, tropical to those of us who live elsewhere, but here, they are simply local and indigenous) in pots almost everywhere you look defies the international stereotypes of this city state as a concrete fortress exclusively for transnational banks, high technology and shipping.
In the micro-ecology of Singapore, there seems to be no concept of “house plant” or “exotic plant”. There is no dividing line between an indoor plant and an outdoor plant. Whether a purple orchid grows in the garden or on your balcony, it still needs you to touch it, and to listen to it. And to figure out the right place for it to grow.