Written by SPI team, edited by John Kwok, PhD candidate, History researcher
[pictures will be included soon]
“Sacred” Trees in Singapore
In 2007, a road accident involving a roadside African Mahogany tree at Jurong in Singapore was published in the local press. The focus however, was not the tragedy of the accident, but the tree after its bark was stripped off as a result of the accident and revealed what looked like the head of two monkeys. Local Singaporeans interpreted it to mean a deity living in the tree. Dubbed the Monkey Tree, it inspired local cults to worship at the tree for good fortune, especially praying for winning lottery numbers. Devotees left offerings at the tree and the crowds of people to gather to make them often resulted in human and traffic congestion, much to the displeasure of the residents neighbourhood.
The Monkey Tree was popular in Singapore, but it was by no means a unique phenomena. SPI has discovered that another tree in Singapore, while not as popular as the Monkey Tree, featured evidence of tree worship. This tree was located in the heart of Singapore’s CBD at the junction of Kepple Road and Anson. It was not difficult to spot this tree for it stands at a busy junction.
Of the many trees that line the Tanjong Pagar Complex, this one in particularly, near some office buildings and a hawker centre, was donned with dozens of water bottles hung from its branches. SPI agents made some enquiry from passers-by and office workers nearby. Surprisingly, most did not pay much attention to it or failed to notice the strangely decorated tree entirely. Indeed, it begs the question, why was this tree decorated in such a manner?
Each water bottle was connected to another by a long strip of orange coloured string. Each pair of bottles was hung from branches on the tree and was neatly spaced out; they were not clustered in one bunch. Each bottle was also filled and capped with a clear liquid, believed to be water. There were 32 bottles altogether – strung into 16 pairs. The conditions of the bottles suggest that they were all put up at the same time; there were uniform levels of corrosion on them.
Furthermore, from physical examinations of the bottles, it appeared that they were recently strung up and hung on the tree. Further indications came from the contents of the bottles; the liquid was clear and showed only minute traces of contamination by pollution and weathering. This indicates that the bottles were all hung at one effort, possibly even by the same person or organisation. However, when empty bottles and string were found tucked and hidden away behind the tree, it suggests that more bottles would be progressively added to it, possibly in stages.
In addition to the hanging bottles were several decorated bottles placed near the tree. One in particularly featured detailed flower patterns and made to resemble a lantern. Another, in contrast, also resembled a lantern but was crudely made with plastic rings cut from mineral water bottles and joined together. At the foot of the tree was a strange object made from metal wire. The wire was skilfully woven into a circular object with the ends left sticking up, resembling a pair of pointed horns. A red make-shift tassel was attached to each end of the horns. In front of this strange object were burnt joss sticks stuck on the ground.
There were also traces of joss papers and evidence that a large scale type of offering ritual had been performed at the tree. It reminds one of the offerings made to spirits during the Hungry Ghost festival. It is likely that the wire-framed object was representative of a tree deity or powerful spirit. But while tree worshipping or the making of offerings to spirits at nature objects is commonly performed in Singapore, the main feature of the tree, the practice of hanging filled bottles on a tree is not.
The bottles, filled liquid and hanging from the branches of the tree, reminds some SPI agents of the famous Wishing Tree in Hong Kong. Kenny recalled during a previous case that took him to visit the Wishing Tree in Hong Kong years ago:
The minute we alighted from our vehicle, crowds of aunties rushed up to me asking to buy their joss-sticks. They thought that we wanted to see the Wishing Tree and to toss on it a pair of oranges, tied together by a long red string, for good luck. We quickly and successfully avoided them and instead made our way directly to a make-shift counter set up near a large joss-stick urn.
A devotee at the counter quoted me several categories of prices for their iconic wish-making oranges that come with a stack of joss papers for burning as offerings. The prices reflected the types of wishes one would like to make i.e. individual blessings, family blessings or blessings for success in business. Each type of blessing commands a different price. And they did not come cheap. Blessings start at HKD88 and could climb to HKD1388. I was astonished that a pair of oranges and a small stack of joss papers could command such prices and wondered if I could bring my own offerings. After all, it’s the same kind of offering we are making to the same tree.
It is unfortunate that making a wish or requests for blessings have been turned into well-oiled money making scheme at the Wishing Tree. Elsewhere, making wishes were accompanied by a simple gesture of tossing a coin into a well or fountain. Fortunately, however, recently I have heard that the Hong Kong Wishing Tree is now better regulated with the emphasis on preserving it as a unique local cultural tradition.
When Kenny saw the filled bottles hanging from the tree in Singapore, he immediately drew parallels with the Wishing Tree in Hong Kong.
1. Evidence of burnt offerings at the foot of the tree reinforces the notion that this tree is recognised as auspicious or special like the Wishing Tree or the Monkey Tree mentioned earlier.
2. Oranges are regarded as symbolic representations of wealth, prosperity and good fortune. These are also popular wishes made by believers at the Wishing Tree. There is also a popular belief at the Wishing Tree that the higher the throw and the higher the orange is caught on the tree branches, one’s wishes would be better heard by spirits and the greater possibility that that one’s wishes would be fulfilled.
Singaporeans may have also adopted the tradition of tossing auspicious items on an auspicious tree. Instead of tossing a pair of oranges strung by a long red string up the tree for good luck, local Singaporeans toss instead bottles of water. A former SPI Cultural specialist believes that these bottles were a symbolic representation of a vessel that hold the dreams and wishes of one making the offering. However, there is a more plausible explanation that stem from the symbol of the oranges in Hong Kong; water in local Chinese culture represents wealth and fortune.
The person or organisation who hung the bottles on the tree in Singapore was very likely mimicking practices from the popular and famous Wishing Tree in Hong Kong. The Money Tree in Hong Kong proved very popular in terms of tourism dollars and the bottle tree in Singapore could be an attempt to reproduce similar results in Singapore.
However, the creators of the bottle tree in Singapore may not be aware that their activities have broken the law on littering in Singapore. According to the Environmental Public Health Act, it is an offense to litter at any public place or public street. The items left on and around the tree can be interpreted as litter. Littering as an offence in Singapore carries a maximum fine of S$1,000 for the first offence and S$2,000 for a subsequent offence. The offence may be compounded for S$150 if it is a first offense – the offender must attend a 15 minute briefing on how littering can harm the environment. In 1992, the EPH (Corrective Work Order) (CWO) Regulations was passed, under which litterers may be required to clean up a public place. As from Feb. 2, 1996, the power to arrest those who litter was extended to operators of public vehicles. In 1999, the number of hours which a person may be required to work under a CWO was increased from 3 hours to a maximum of 12 hours, but not exceeding 3 hours per day.
Will the creators of the bottle tree in Singapore return and continue what they started? Or have they realised the gravity of their activities in terms of breaking the law? SPI will keep you updated with these strange hanging bottles.
Tree worship is a cultural belief that worshippers will receive blessings from spirits. Such spirits may directly reside in trees or through the tree they can be communicated in other realms. The spirits can reward worshippers of material requests such as winning lotteries or other wealth. Sometimes the tree spirits can give protection, for example healing illness or safety in transportation.
Tree worship is a matter of worshipping physical objects that is deemed nothing but superstition in skeptics’ eyes. Chinese religious folk beliefs are full of such magical stuffs. In ancient times, when indigenous people did not understand science, plus the fear from the natural environments around them, they placed huge respects on things that are larger than life or relate to their daily survival, such as thunder, rain, moon, sun, mountains, trees etc. Such respects became the primitive elements of shamanism and animism for hoping of some supernatural power would protect them against threats and dangers, that later evolved into a cultural practice. They worshiped most if not all natural substances from stone idols to biological plants and animals (ox, tiger, monkey, snake gods), often in admiration of their physical strengths.
Such physical strengths that appear greater than that of human which might be not understood (or explained) scientifically, were imagined to carry supernatural powers by our ancestors in the old days.