“Singapore’s Very Own New Zealand”
by Marcus Kuan (Singapore)
Audio: “Singapore’s Very Own New Zealand,” read by Marcus Kuan
The emerald water bubbled and boiled, a magic cauldron of freshwater, algae and strands of hydrilla, bristling with a stillness and calm of a swamp. Silt and mud occasionally scoured the banks, soaking my Crocs in a grimy brown that threatened my balance at every step. Common garden snails slobbered into crevices of brush, their golden aquatic counterparts depositing bright red eggs on the rock barns, before unlatching and falling into the abyss. The smell of rain and muck clung to my feet, as I laid my line out gently along the seams of the bank, fingers crusting from the silt as I stripped it in.
The reservoir was never this quiet. The white noise of the once-rushing rapids deposited from the drains now poured and sloshed, thick logs and branches barricading the once-mighty water from cascading down the weathered path of cement. Great spires of rock now merely served to guide the water rather than restrain it, and smaller sediments lay abandoned at the bottom, drowning in a shallow pool of dirt and slime. A fallen tree lay on the water’s edge, struck by rains and storms that only seemed to worsen over the years, as the bustling water catchment slowly transformed into a tepid swamp.
Fishing was never easy in the little red dot. However, no worries crossed my mind about that as a toddler, hauling speckled pavons and zebra tilapias from a place my father coined “Singapore’s very own New Zealand”. Tucked in a lonely corner in a forested park that connected to the Central Catchment Reserve, there were no strict rules back then to access the venue, which seemed to be plucked right out of a Tolkienian brook, with a semblance of a modern canal and drainage system. Surrounded by lush trees and grass patches that stretched out into untamed forests, it was the playground of my early childhood, as I chased for grasshoppers and scoured the banks for an “ecological survey” of shrimps, guppies and dragonfly nymphs.
There was something special about this slice of heaven. Separate from the concrete jungles and towering skyscrapers that overshadowed the urban skyline, sheltered from heat that made air conditioning a valued necessity. The bustling city never had fresh air, the musk of cigarettes, exhaust fumes and pungence of pigeon waste lingering in streets and alleys. Buds of tissues, plastic bags and used tissue packets were common sights, but never pervaded the constant motion of its residents, their kiasu mentality powering the city forward to unknown heights of progress. It is with places like these that residents can step on the brakes and take a breath before plunging deeper into the hustle and bustle of life, and I was more than overjoyed to slosh around in muddy fields on slow weekends than most kids.
It was the best-kept secret I had.
Eventually, life caught up. Trees died when knowledge bloomed. Assignments piled into minute paper castles that were stacked, crumpled and thrown. The secret faded into memory as my father’s concerns grew as well, yet he still stowed away in quiet hours of the morning, returning with breakfast and the familiar scent of a morning fishing session. Bus rides on snaking roads gave glimpses of trees and hanging vines that clung onto branched arms, distant cousins to those that embraced the trees of the forest, yet thickets of bougainvillaea and orchids shrouded thick roots, an artificial polish to the garden city. Cut grass replaced blades of weed and cattails, the odd mosquito landing on the glass replacing the butterflies and crickets that eagerly jumped onto my shorts with every step into the unknown.
Perhaps it was nostalgia. Perhaps it was the appeal of the wilderness and the exhilarating sights it brought, or perhaps it was simply wanting a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, I longed to return. Yet, my father moved on to different sites, as fishing slowly evolved to stricter guidelines and rules. The grass was simply greener at other secret spots, none of which my young mind was privy to. ‘New Zealand’ became a place that faded into legend, an honorary site for old times’ sake and for its stunning view that barely changed.
Until the storms.
Dreadful rains, thundering bellows from the clouds, as if Mother Nature herself forewarned of our sin. The irony of air conditioning was that we had longer periods of “air conditioning”, as gales blew hanging laundry from bamboo poles and water flooded the packed streets, forming a marsh pit of alluvium on tarmac. Whips of lightning cracked the sky, each bolt followed by the snapping clap of a shockwave.
Among the chaos, a lone tembusu fell silently in our alcove of the woods.
It was several months until we discovered the damage it had wrought. With the tree gone, it was in plain view. The water slowed. The fish swam to deeper reaches, further into the dense forestry, and the rest of the wildlife seemed to trickle with it. What remained was a still bog, unmoving and stagnant, as flies buzzed incessantly near rotting wood and trash of all forms swept up by the floods, piling into the recesses of the stream. Only a constant slush of water remained from once teeming drains that pounded the rocks, and a huge pile of wood damming the flow.
Needless to say, fishing was unsuccessful.
Neglect and memory riddled my purpose with guilt.
Did I contribute to this?
Could I have saved this place?
What could I do, against such sheer natural power, caused by our negligence?
How can I face it again, after all that I’ve done?
All that we have done, pillaging and destroying for selfish needs?
There was a profound sense of sadness with this loss.
It was akin to losing a second home, a paradise on Earth untouched by civilization, now gone by our misdeeds.
But, a glimmer of hope remained.
With a spare bag, I picked up a stray can.
And all others, beached on desolate shores.
Kiasu—Literally “Scared To Lose”, a common phrase in Singlish connoting being overly competitive.
Marcus Kuan, age 17, is a Singaporean teenager who loves to read and occasionally write. He has been fishing since childhood and has a fond love of the environment. Marcus aspires to become a zoologist and hopes that everyone can take a moment to appreciate the natural wonders of the world.
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9/17/23, 8:43 AM
Powerful. Spreading the truth some don't think about, some don't have to worry about. A great and strong piece.
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
8/25/23, 10:35 PM
Excellent and amazing
8/17/23, 7:00 AM
Absolutely beautiful poem! The words were picked meaningfully and used it a descriptive way. Very relatable.
8/11/23, 4:59 AM
Beautiful, moving and thought provoking. Keep up the amazing work!
8/11/23, 4:48 AM
Absolutely beautiful work! Relatable for some and eye-opening for others.
6/19/23, 6:26 PM
It is really great, I'm impressed!
Eunice N Kitchener
6/11/23, 5:13 PM
Quite amazing and interesting story. It's also a challenge to others. Develop your skills through hard work.
6/8/23, 7:21 AM
Beautiful. A wonderful portrait of the identity crisis caused by colonialism.
5/26/23, 6:23 AM
Congratulations Claire - this is a powerful piece - this feeling of a yearning for a home that may not even exist anymore will be something that everyone who lives outside of their original homeland will resonate with. Well done.