July 30, 2007


COLOURFUL mata puteh songbird in a homemade
bamboo cage with eye-catching ceramic feeding dishes.

david ellis

EVERY Sunday morning dozens of Singapore's bachelors pick up their birds and head off to the Wah Heng Coffee Shop for a few hours of warbling seductively-sweet nothings in a public ritual of affection that's become somewhat the talk of the town.

And even if they eventually marry, most of these blokes will find it hard to kick the habit, leaving wife and kids at home, and with old faithfuls or new-found birds in-hand, continue the Sunday morning fraternisations they've engaged in for more years than most care to remember.

Yet there's not the slightest suggestion of any shenanigans: for these men who often live in pokey high-rises, and for their birds that are of the true avian variety confined to even pokier cages, Sunday morning outings to the Wah Heng Coffee Shop are a highlight of their week.

In land-scare Singapore few can indulge pets beyond birds in cages and fish in bowls, and keeping these songbirds (as they are known) is a big part of life for many… with Sunday mornings their opportunity to show off carefully nurtured plumage, to listen to competitive whistlings and warblings, compare bright eyes and correct posture, and to marvel at the intricacy of hand-crafted bamboo and teak cages.

Several hundred dollars can change hands here for a single merbok, thrush, bulbul or mata puteh from the nearby jungles of Malaysia, or further-off China.

And these captives are treated right royally, being indulged with such treats as tropical fruits, boiled eggs, live insects and even baby cereals… and although most songbirds are unabashed show-offs in the pursuit of the opposite sex, their owners often spend endless hours whistling tunes or playing recorded bird songs for them to mimic in the hope of finding songbird love at Wah Heng.

Sunday mornings here began close on 30 years ago, when a handful of enthusiasts gathered to show off cages they'd crafted for their birds, often from scrap, rather than the birds themselves.

Over the years the attention swung the other way, and there's now even a national competition with S$10,000 in cash to find Singapore's finest songbirds.

The Wah Heng action begins at 6.30am with cages arriving on the backs of pushbikes and motorcycles, to be swung from rods across the pavement so owners can admire colleague's birds and cages, discuss training strategies and engage in good-natured banter.

A CORNER of the crowds that gather along the street
around the Wah Heng Coffee Shop on Sunday mornings.
By eight o'clock there's not a seat to be had, not just because of the near-200 songbird owners now sipping coffee or tucking into brekkie, but because of swelling numbers of camera-toting tourists.

We talk to George, a Singaporean hairdresser and owner of a mata puteh who has been coming to Wah Heng for over ten years. He shows us his bird in a bamboo cage he made himself, one whose lacquer is mirror-bright and with intricate ivory and ceramic handles and food bowls – even baby toys to keep his bird amused during the long hours George is in his hair salon.

"I'm waiting for the worm man to come, although I've already bought this for my bird's dinner tonight," he says, showing us a small wire mesh cylinder filled with fresh grass and dozens of flittering little grasshoppers.

"My bird loves these, and the worms too – and fresh fruit and honey," George says. And remarkably as much as these men are attached to their songbird pets, unlike westerners they seldom give them names. George can't explain it. "It's a bird," is his only reasoning.

SHOW OFF: a Singapore songbird does
its stuff at a Sunday morning gathering.
As the morning moves on, owners encourage their birds to noisily do their stuff, traders haggle over prices of bird feeds and novelties, and Wah Heng does a roaring trade in steaming bowls of Singaporean noodles, pork, chicken and seafood.

Then at 10.30 the cages start coming down, disappearing under elaborate hand-made covers, to be strapped back on the pushbikes and motorcycles.

Sunday morning is over; for these men and their birds, it's back to their high-rises for another week.

(Ask taxi drivers to you to the Sunday Songbirds at Wah Heng Coffee Shop on the corner of Tiong Bahru and Seng Poh Roads; or take the MRT or bus to the Tiong Bahru MRT inter-change and walk to from there.)

July 14, 2007

All Aboard for Svalbard

Just 600 miles from the North Pole lies the island group of Svalbard, of which Spitsbergen is the largest. Variously occupied and exploited by the Dutch, Russians and Norwegians, in 1920 it was decided by treaty that the Norwegians should administer it and the capitol, Longyearbyen, flies the Norwegian tricolour.

The archipelago, named and first mapped by the famous Dutch explorer, Willem Barents, in 1596 became a whaling station, a coal mining centre, a launching point for famous arctic expeditions and more recently, a mecca for naturalists, polar researchers and eco-tourists. Despite Svalbard’s extreme northerly location, the warm North Atlantic current keeps the surrounding seas ice-free almost year round. Temperatures average -16oC in winter and 6oC in summer. 200mm of precipitation is a normal year.

During the so-called heroic age of polar exploration, men set forth into the extremities of the earth in search of all sorts of things, not the least of which was fame, glory and national pride. Spitsbergen, because of its high latitude, was an ideal point for ‘jumping off’ into the Arctic in search of the North Pole.

In 1897, the Swedish scientist and intrepid balloonist, Salomon August Andrée, launched himself and two co-pilots on a journey to the North Pole from Danes Island and were never seen again. Well, not alive anyway. Their bodies, remnants of their balloon and a camera were accidentally found thirty years later on White Island in the far east of Svalbard. Andrée’s balloon crashed and the survivors had made it back to White Island before dying from Vitamin A poisoning (trichinosis) thanks to eating polar bear liver.

Balloons were back on Spitsbergen in 1926 with the Italian, Umberto Nobile, along with Roald Amundsen and rich American Lincoln Ellsworth. Their voyage over the pole in the airship Norge (Norway), is the first creditable expedition to the North Pole even though many would argue that Cmdr Richard Byrd, who took off and landed in a nearby paddock a couple of days prior with his Fokker Tri-Motor, Josephine Ford, was the first. That is - if you discount both Peary and Cook!

Nobile, wounded by the fame wrested from him by Amundsen and Ellsworth, was back at Ny Ålesund again in 1928. This time his airship, suitably named Italia, would be an all-Italian triumph. Or so he thought. Instead he crashed in poor weather out on the ice pack and became the famous subject of the 1969 movie, “The Red Tent” and was played by Oscar winner, Peter Finch.

Today Svalbard is visited by tourists looking to experience one of the most remarkable and accessible Arctic locations thanks to the warming effects of the North Atlantic Current. Polar Bears, Reindeer, Arctic Foxes and countless species of birds inhabit the islands. Marine mammals are abundant and seals, walrus, narwhals, orcas, belugas, bowhead and minke whales all inhabit Spitsbergen’s coastal waters.

Cruise to Spitsbergen with Costa:

Spitzbergen Cruise $5,999.00

14 nights onboard Costa Atlantica. Departing 6 Jul 2008

Destination: Europe, Northern Europe
Cruise Line: Costa
Ship: Atlantica
Embarkation Port: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 15 Nights
Departure Dates: 6 Jul 2008

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