The sound of music in a disused Singapore quarry

Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times AsiaOne 14 Apr 17;

Every weekend, the sweet notes of Chinese flute music rise above the quarry lake in Bukit Batok Nature Park and waft into the listening air.

The player of those dulcet sounds is not exactly what one expects.

Wearing tattered sports attire and a crew cut, 67-year-old retiree Tan Eng Bee played water polo in the 1960s and still swims more than 15km a week.

But almost 60 years of flute practice shows when he whips out the three flutes in his bag and starts playing music at the water's edge.

The primary school dropout taught himself to play as a child, inspired by the music he heard on the radio.

"Exercise has helped me play better... You must be fit and be able to control your breath. Especially when the phrases are long, and when the last note is very long," said Mr Tan.

He is as much a part of Bukit Batok as the quarry itself, having lived in the neighbourhood from the days it was a laid-back kampung and seen the beginnings of the nature park in 1988.

Mr Tan's flute music finds an audience in former fishery wholesaler Michael Ong and his wife Phyllis Peh, who live across the road from the park, and visit the place to walk every morning.

Said Madam Peh, 54, who is a housewife: "Because of the granite, there's this echo. It's very different from listening to a CD at home. Every time he finishes a tune we'll clap and he'll feel very motivated."

Mr Ong, 58, who visited the park for the first time only last year, after being diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, said: "I didn't know there was nature and fresh air so close to home."

Despite undergoing chemotherapy, he is active and in good spirits, helped by the fresh air and long walks.

Mr Ong used to pull 16-hour workdays. Nowadays, he takes time to listen to the bubbly song of the Straw-headed Bulbul, which is found in the park and very few other places in Singapore.

Sometimes they are greeted by raucous troops of white-crested laughing thrushes with their funky white-crested heads and black eye bands.

The granite quarries of Singapore - there are at least 18 dispersed across Bukit Timah and Pulau Ubin - fuelled the country's development from the 19th century.

Along with sand quarries in Bedok and Tampines, they supplied construction material for everything from roads and Housing Board flats to landmarks like Fort Canning and St Andrew's Cathedral, and even the lighthouse on Pedra Branca.

It almost never crosses the mind, but granite is an essential part of everyday life.

It is everywhere - in the walls of homes and offices, in the Pan-Island Expressway that crosses the country.

You could say it is the bedrock of Singapore's bustling economy, and much of it came from the hills in Bukit Timah and Pulau Ubin.

Granite is now imported from other countries. Although only a small fraction - perhaps less than 10 per cent by area - of Singapore's granite had been extracted, the quarried areas were difficult to reclaim for economic use, said Mr Michael Lee, a former geologist with the Public Works Department from 1972 until the last quarry closed in 1999.

The granite workers and their machinery are long gone, but their legacy lives on in the scenic beauty of the cliffs and lakes they left behind.

Mr Wong Tuan Wah, group director of conservation at the National Parks Board (NParks), said quarrying affected Singapore's biodiversity as natural habitats were destroyed or fragmented.

However, the agency has resurrected some quarries as nature parks with shelters and basic amenities and enhanced the habitat, such as by installing floating wetlands.

The agency also manages former quarries on Pulau Ubin for sports like kayaking and mountain biking.

In 2005, Red Bull World Cliff Diving Championship 2002 winner Joey Zuber even dove off a cliff at Kekek Quarry on Pulau Ubin to promote the sport in the region.

Quarry scenes were very different years ago, when mining activities were at their height.

Every piece of granite was born out of a "big bang" as explosives blasted them out of the rock face.

Mr Lee remembers having to deal with incidents of "flying rocks" in the course of his job to ensure that safety regulations were observed in the country's granite quarries.

The danger zone is hard to gauge but it is on the order of a few hundred metres, he said.

But the heavy granite was worth its weight.

Singapore has two slightly different types, called Bukit Timah Granite and Gombak Norite.

The latter is harder and darker, with a higher proportion of minerals containing iron and magnesium, while the former has a higher proportion of silica.

Mr Lee said both are very durable and serve as excellent material for construction, compared with inferior materials like limestone or sandstone.

"Geology has bestowed on Singapore two resources side by side. The granite and sand industry played a significant role in building Singapore," he said.

And as icing on the cake, the quarries can still be enjoyed by thousands today.

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