In an expanse of parkland just north of central Singapore, dozens of ornate cages dangle from tall poles, swaying gently in the breeze. In the cages perch an array of chirping songbirds; at ground level, their owners mill around, drinking tea and chatting.
This is the Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club. Every Sunday, here in Ang Mo Kio Town Garden West, its members gather to practise a dying Singaporean tradition.
“Only old folks like us enjoy this hobby now. Young people don’t like it anymore,” says William Chua, whose love for songbirds started when he was on the cusp of retirement in 1995. On 363 out of 365 mornings a year, William brings a dozen or more birds to the park, hoisting their carefully maintained cages onto the poles using a pulley system.
For the bird-keepers, the tradition is social: it’s about a close-knit community of enthusiasts bonding over the intricacies of their hobby. But the birds need company, too, which is why all the club’s members keep more than one.
“Each bird has a different personality,” says William. “You need to listen to their voice. And because we’re with the birds every day, we get to know them.”
According to Robin Chua, vice chairman of Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club, the most popular species among Singaporean bird-keepers – the merbok, or zebra dove as it is more affectionately known – sings more beautifully when surrounded by other birds. Three other species are commonly kept – the Chinese thrush, red-whiskered bulbul and the white-rumped shama – but the merbok is most prized, not least for its harmonious coo. A single specimen can cost thousands of dollars.
The Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club’s expansive parkland set-up is unique – in fact, it’s the largest bird-singing and display arena in Southeast Asia – but they’re not the only surviving practitioners of the hobby. “There are many little pockets of bird displays all over the country,” explains Robin Chua. “These are often confined to one or two types of songbirds. They are usually on the ground floor of a block of public flats or just a small structure on the ground for hanging a few cages.” Locally, these are known as ‘bird corners’.
At the Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club, the birdcages are hoisted up some 20 feet (six metres). The cages are covered with a cloth while being raised, to prevent the zebra doves from being startled. Despite being ground feeders, Robin explains zebra doves actually enjoy being at an elevated height, simply because they seek comfort and joy in basking in the sun.
While the origins of bird-keeping in Singapore are unclear, most sources point to it starting in the 1950s when the families of British Armed Forces established the Singapore Cage Bird Society. Back then, the Tiong Bahru Bird Arena – a bird corner located at the end of Block 53 – was a tourist attraction promoted by the Singapore Tourism Board. It was proudly featured in foreign travel publications, attracting many curious bird lovers from overseas.
At the hobby’s peak in the 1980s, hundreds of songbird fans would congregate at the arena, but now, both this site and Block 53 are demolished and bird-keeping has become practically obsolete. The recent closure of the once-popular Ann Soon Hong Bird Shop after 60 years in operation is testament to its sharp decline.
“Singaporeans now are only interested in shopping and movies,” says Jenny Teo, former owner of the shop. “Who cares about buying birds any more?”
In rapidly developing, land-poor Singapore, bird-keeping is not, of course, the most obvious of hobbies. This may explain why the tradition is predominantly taken up by seniors, Singaporeans who have experienced kampong culture: they remember a time when the skyline was not defined by skyscrapers; when space – and a sense of community – was easier to come by.
“Some [of the bird-keepers] are in their 70s, even in their 80s,” says William. “When we’re here, we are all friends.” Robin Chua says similar: “The hobbyists are mainly retirees, self-employed people (like cab drivers), part-timers or business owners with employees to run the business for them. There are very few bird-keepers who are full-time employees.”
The disappearance of kampong culture has been linked to the epidemic of loneliness amongst the elderly in the city-state. A 2018 report conducted by the city-state’s Immigration and Checkpoints Authority revealed that suicide rates among the elderly are at an all-time high, despite a decline in numbers overall. With pet ownership shown to improve elderly people’s overall well-being, bird-keeping might offer not just distraction, but a new lease of life for Singapore’s senior citizens.
Not all hope is lost in preserving the tradition of Singaporean bird-keeping. On some days, Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club members can be seen showing their children or grandchildren around the park.
“We do have serious hobbyists in their 20s and 30s,” says Robin Chua. “If there are people younger than this, they’re usually showing an interest in the father or grandfather’s hobby.”
In the distance, Singapore’s formidable skyline grows at an unstoppable rate. But the birds continue to sing their songs of togetherness.
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