Unbeknown to many, a hilly wooded area off Upper Serangoon Road has become a bird sanctuary and popular birdwatching spot. An amazing 146 species of birds have been spotted in this 24 ha patch of green to date, including migratory birds and a few rare endangered species as well.
To those of us more used to garden-variety sparrows and pesky mynahs, learning about the beauty and diversity of the many birds in Singapore is an eye-opener, especially when these birds conveniently congregate in a single area.
This wooded bird park is actually part of what used to be Bidadari Cemetery, one of Singapore’s earliest cemeteries. The graves have since been exhumed though and the earth allowed to settle and rest. In its place a park has sprung up, however sadly this is all temporary. To the consternation of bird lovers, nature enthusiasts and conservationists, on this very site will rise the highly-touted and much anticipated Bidadari Housing Estate.
The land once belonged to the Sultan of Johor in the mid-1800s, and was the site of a grand residence – the Istana Bidadari (Bidadari House), from which the area takes its name. In later years, during the early 1920s wealthy Arabian family the Alkaffs built a magnificent Japanese-themed garden with a large lake nearby, called the Alkaff Garden.
After the land was acquired by the Municipal Council of Singapore (the administrative body pre-Singapore’s independence) for use as a cemetery, the first burial at Bidadari Cemetery, a Christian one, took place in December 1907. A Muslim section was added 2 years later to the initial Protestant and Roman Catholic plots, and a Hindu section added eventually in 1925.When the cemetery closed 66 years later in 1973, there were altogether approximately 147,000 graves.
Many of early Singapore’s prominent members of the community were buried in Bidadari. Among them were Chinese physician and community leader Dr Lim Boon Keng (Boon Keng Road), known as the “grand old man” of Singapore’s Chinese society; Mr Ahmad Bin Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Health and Labour in the 1950s and 1960s (Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim in Jurong); and Dr George Herbert Garlick, a prominent medical practitioner (Garlick Avenue in Bukit Timah). Accomplished architect Alfred John Bidwell didn’t get a road named after him, however he is well remembered in the iconic and much-loved buildings he designed that are preserved today – the Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, and the Victoria Theatre.
The graves in Bidadari Cemetery were exhumed from 2001 to 2006 however as the government had big plans for the site given its attractive central location. The Woodleigh MRT Station sitting right on the ex-cemetery grounds was opened in 2011.
In August 2013, the Ministry for National Development (MND) unveiled grand plans for an ecology and heritage-friendly housing estate. The 93 ha estate with 10,000 public housing (HDB) units and 1,000 private apartments was announced to be a “tranquil urban oasis” promoting “garden living at Bidadari”. The estate will feature a 10 ha Bidadari Park leveraging on the current park terrain, and with the beautiful raintrees thankfully left intact. At the centre of the park will be an Alkaff Lake reminiscent of the old Alkaff Garden lake in the area almost a century ago. Upper Aljunied Road cutting through the estate will be turned into a pedestrianised Heritage Walk, to help residents learn about the area’s rich heritage as they stroll along the leafy boulevard.
The first HDB flats will go on sale in 2015 and are likely to be completed by about 2018. Since many of Singapore’s popular housing estates were once cemeteries before too, chief of them Bishan which is now home to million dollar public housing flats, Bidadari’s past is not expected to deter eager house hunters and future residents.
The park adjacent to Upper Serangoon Road is split into 2 sections by Upper Aljunied Road. The hilly wooded bird-haunt area is north of Upper Aljunied Road and used to be the Muslim part of the cemetery, while on the other side wide open green fields with paved paths in between stretch away where once the largely Christian cemetery stood.
My friend and I sadly did not manage to see any of the more uncommon birds in the wooded area, although we did catch a glimpse of 2 hornbills in flight just as we were entering the park. We also heard bird songs aplenty throughout the park, but I guess you need the powerful binoculars birders typically lug around to be able to spot the birds, and you do have to know where to look for them.
The open parkland on the other side of the road was nice for a morning stroll especially among the large matured trees, and many resident joggers were enjoying a brisk run to start their day. Walking in the vast empty park, I imagined that this is what Bukit Brown Cemetery is going to be like once all the graves are exhumed, also to make way ultimately for a housing estate.
In any case, be sure to visit the Bidadari Memorial Garden next to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as well. Opened in 2004, the garden commemorates the history of Bidadari Cemetery and some of Singapore’s early pioneers. 21 selected headstones have been preserved in the small memorial garden. The original iron gate and gate post of Bidadari Cemetery bearing the lion emblem of the Singapore Municipal Council were relocated and now front the memorial garden.
Along Upper Serangoon Rood, junctions of Bartley Road and Upper Aljunied Road.
Best to take the train and alight at Woodleigh MRT station which is right at the doorstep of the park. Or if you really want to drive then you might be able to park at the entrance to the Mount Vernon funeral parlour as I did.
HOW MUCH TIME
Just to walk around both sides of the park will probably take you about an hour and a half. Many birdwatchers spend hours patiently waiting with their birdwatching gear at the park though.
- According to NParks (National Parks Board of Singapore), there are over 300 species of birds that are native to Singapore.
- Mount Vernon funeral parlour, Singapore’s private funeral parlour with 8 funeral halls run by 2 commercial operators – Mount Vernon Sanctuary and Singapore Casket, is also slated to make way for the new Bidadari Estate. There are low-rise columbariums as well as a 9-storey pagoda housing “niches” of cremated ashes. A total of 21,000 niches are being relocated to other more far-flung columbariums.
- Woodleigh MRT station on the North-East Line was completed at the end of 2002, however only opened in June 2011 once the projected ridership of 2000 per station was supposedly achieved. Coincidentally however, the station opening happened 2 months after the township of Potong Pasir (which the station is in) was wrested back from opposition rule by the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) after 8 years.
- The British used Singapore as an Indian penal colony up until 1865. Many of the early Indian settlers in Singapore were convicts sent here to work as construction labourers, and they helped to build many of Singapore’s early buildings and monuments. Some of these early Indian labourers stayed on in Singapore, and when they passed away were buried in the Hindu section of Bidadari Cemetery.
- There are some small unpaved paths leading to quieter areas in the wooded section. Do not go to these areas of the park when it is dark as it is pretty quiet in there, and for women especially don’t go alone.
- The more uncommon Variable Squirrel or Finalayson’s Squirrel is resident at Bidadari. Originally from Thailand and Myanmar, they too may have to be relocated out of Bidadari.
- Facebook group for Saving Bidadari for Birds and People (lots of gorgeous bird pics)
- National Library Board (NLB) Infopedia Site about the old Alkaff Garden
- National Heritage Board (NHB) Site on the Bidadari Memorial Garden
- Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) 2013 Draft Masterplan on Bidadari Estate