Hornbill Watercolor by Alfred Russel Wallace. 1855. Courtesy A.R. Wallace Fund
In the Concrete Jungle. Singapore

“There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore, and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day, principally those who work in the gambir plantations, which are always made in newly-cleared jungle. We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting an opportunity to spring upon us.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Singapore. 1854-1862

The sweat rolls down your temples in the heavy heat and the humming of the cicadas blocks out the urban sounds of the city. Here in Bukit Timah it is easy to imagine Wallace’s fear of tigers in Singapore. Nervous business collecting insects indeed…

From swampy pepper plantations to hyper-modern city – Singapore today is one of the busiest ports in the world and a truly urban jungle. There is some wildness left though and I’ve come to see it with biologist Lena Chan from the National Parks Board of Singapore. Lena accompanied myself and some visiting film makers to Bukit Timah National Park where Wallace used to collect beetles. Nestled in the middle of this metropolis are the last remnant forests that Wallace saw the sawyers busily working on back in 1854. During our visit today Lena helped bring Bukit Timah alive as it must have been during the 1800’s when it was still just a swampy jungle port…

Away from the busy trails full of joggers Wallace’s Singapore does indeed come alive. Droopy elephantine palm fronds and wild durian trees dim the forest understory. Small forest birds burst through the gloom in a flash of color. Above a troop of macque monkeys slowly rustles through the low branches chirping to one another as they go. And below a monitor lizard slinks through the leaf litter in search of a meal while giant butterflies waft lazily overhead.With a little imagination it is possible to imagine tigers lying in wait behind every shadow as Wallace did collecting beetles here in 1854. It’s really a surprise to find such an impressively representative assortment of southeast Asian lowland rainforest in the middle of Singapore.

Later that afternoon we visited a new Wallace exhibit in the middle of the park. A plaque and storyline details Wallace’s important visit here, paying homage to his contributions to natural history and evolution. Not far away and just outside the park we also visited the same missionary church Wallace was so impressed by during his collecting forays here. Founded by French Jesuits Wallace was impressed by the selfless work of the missionaries to the Chinese communities here. He writes:

“No wonder they make converts, for it must be a great blessing to the poor people among whom they labour to have a man among them to whom they can go in any trouble or distress, who will comfort and advise them, who devotes his whole life to their instruction and welfare.”

The church is certainly bigger and more modern today. Many people come and go up the steps for an afternoon sermon in the fading tropical sun. Then as now it is a community meeting point enjoying bustling foot traffic. Of all the places I have visited along Wallace’s route I thought Singapore would be the most changed and yet I’m delightfully surprised by what does remain from Wallace’s journals so long ago. Wilderness, memory, and nostalgia wrapped up in the middle of the urban jungle….

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