November 24, 2011
“The best things in life are free.” Ironically, the cliché could not be any truer than on Orchard Road, Singapore’s premier shopping belt. I was taking an evening stroll with my family under Christmasy lights, oblivious to the brand names in screaming neon all around. Instead, I bought into the visual and auditory treats of this posh street.
Busk the Move
I’ve brought you a gift. It’s a crystal, nothing more. But you turn it this way and look into it, it’ll show you your dream.
Those lines were from the movie Labyrinth, spoken by David Bowie as the Goblin King, enticing a young Jennifer Connelly with a mystical crystal ball floating between his fingers. Walking down Orchard Road, I was similarly mesmerized. Instead of a goblin-slash-rock-star Bowie, however, it was a funky Asian busker that detained my attention on the sidewalk.
The street performer was lithely rolling a crystal (actually acrylic) sphere on his hands and body, set to pulsating music blaring from speakers attached to his iPod. He manipulated the ball with enigmatic fluidity; there were no breaks in the continuity of movement. The ball seemed to barely touch his skin, as if drawn by strings, as it gently rolled between his fingers, over his palms, and on his fingertips. At one point, the ball appeared to be suspended in mid-air, stationary, as his fingers were writhing around it.
The performance turned out to be contact juggling, an art form that combined elements of dance, balancing act, and meditation. The last element elevated it from a mere circus act to mysticism. As he wound up the routine, he pressed his palms together as in prayer and looked up to heaven as the ball rested on the bridge of his nose. The sizable crowd that had gathered around him erupted into applause and tossed their appreciation into his coin bucket. I couldn’t say if the crystal ball showed me my dream as David Bowie had promised, but the busker’s performance was certainly dreamy.
Man: Admittedly a few birds did act strange….
Tippi Hedren: This isn’t a few birds!
That exchange from the Hitchcock thriller The Birds may well be uttered on tree-lined Orchard Road. A symphony of bird songs – the warblers themselves remained hidden from view way up the towering trees – echoed through the street below. At first, we assumed it was a recording, merely artificial sound effects to amuse shoppers and tourists.
Our host later confirmed they were real birds, numbering in the thousands. Their original roosting area had been cleared of trees and turned into a carpark; the displaced starlings had to move to Orchard Road to roost at dusk. Their shrill tweets rose above the street-level din of traffic and loud music, an avian Greek chorus to the sounds of the city, amplified by the canopy of trees and walls of buildings of concrete and glass that flanked the street. Despite their unmistakable presence, I neither spotted any bird nor their droppings, owing to the efficiency of the city government to keep the street squeaky clean. This was aseptic Singapore, after all.
Sadly, the birds were considered pests by the Orchard Road business establishments (I could imagine shop owners saying the Tippi Hedren line in Chinese!). I hoped the city government could simply control the bird population and stop a step away from totally exterminating the warblers. The Orchard Road birds imbued this coldly commercial concrete jungle with the soulful sounds of a real jungle.
Perspective was everything. I found that art and nature, not Armani and Nike, were the real finds on Orchard Road. Both could delight the soul and the senses at no cost at all. My shopaholic sister would disagree, of course.