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8 Oct 07
Once Cool now Cruel: No sponsors for historic Tiong Bahru Bird Corner
By Ng Tze Yong
THE bird brand just won't sit right.
The construction boards have finally come down at Tiong Bahru Block 53's famed bird corner and the pre-war flats have reopened as a boutique hotel.
But the melody of the songbirds - the mata puteh, sharma and jambu - is still missing.
The management of the new Link Hotel, which opened in July, hasn't been able to find sponsors for the corner's hooks and number tags.
The problem? Advertisers just don't want to be seen as condoning the caging of birds.
Said the hotel's executuve assistant manager, Mr James Ting, 47: 'Nowadays, every company wants to be eco-friendly. Everyone wants to love the earth.'
In the past two months, he has approached about 10 companies.
His pitch is tantalising as far as business proposals go: The welding of the 360 custom-made stainless steel hooks is expected to cost between $4,000 to $5,000 - peanuts in advertising terms.
Unlike an advertisement, the hooks will be there permanently. Locals - and flocks of tourists - will see it.
But Mr Ting's pitch is falling on deaf ears.
'Cruel, lah' is the reluctant reply.
No advertiser wants to see its logo swinging above a poor little songbird.
Animal rights activists compare bird-singing to bull-fighting. It's animal abuse, plain and simple.
Said Mr Lim Kim Seng, a committee member of the Nature Society's birdwatchers' group: 'No animal should be kept in captivity just for the sake of enjoyment.
'There should be a higher purpose, such as to save a species from extinction.'
The 45-year-old hopes that 'one day, society matures so that there is no longer a place for bird-singing'.
But Dr Kelvin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, begged to differ.
Animal rights is a good thing, he said. 'But then, what about pet dogs and zoos?'
The debate could go on forever, but will Tiong Bahru's bird corner ever see life again?
Public communications professor Lee Chun Wah from Nanyang Technological University believes that a sponsor can have its cake and eat it too.
'These days, companies talk about 'community PR', about generating goodwill beyond business,' he said.
'It can be defined in a broad way. It can be about heritage today and about the environment tomorrow.'
In the old days, it was an unlikely company - Dutch airline KLM - which was the sponsor. (See report above.)
Link Hotel has not approached KLM.
'We want to find a company that will fit our corporate image,' said Mr Ting. 'Airlines are kind of in the leisure business.'
Ultimately, the Link Hotel will pay for the hooks and the number tags if it has to.
It is contractually-bound to maintain the bird corner under the terms of the tender it won from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) four years ago.
Still, it's not just about the hooks.
'You need to bring back the joy of the good old days,' said Tanjong Pagar Town Council's property manager Loy Sai Sai, 55.
It was his idea in 1997 to upgrade the then-shabby bird corner to what it is today.
'The old-timers loved it. They came here from Katong, from Malaysia and even from Thailand,' said Mr Loy.
On weekend mornings, there would be as many as 150 enthusiasts.
The onus, said Mr Loy, will be on the hotel to woo them back. Woo because of a spirit that went out with the kampungs: Community.
'If you go up to a stranger in a kopitiam and try to befriend him, people will think you are mad. But if you have your songbird, your cup of kopi... it's different,' said 56-year-old odd-job labourer Yee Weng Wah.
Theirs is a passion about nature's own song, a sport where singlets and slippers will do.
The old-timers decorate the cages like doll houses, with porcelain cups and cucumber slices. They listen for hours, the chirping taking them back to the kampung days.
Strict conservation rules have preserved the facade of Block 53. But the place now has a classy, cosmopolitan feel.
The old kopitiam where the old-timers huddled with their songbirds on rainy days is now a swanky Japanese restaurant. Hotel staff in spiffy suits tend to coachloads of tourists at the 288-room hotel, where one night costs between $260 and $600.
Although the hotel will only be officially opened next month, 90 per cent of the rooms have already been booked. Mr Ting wants the bird lovers to be part of its future.
'They don't have to worry about their attire. People walk around in hotels in their swimming trunks anyway,' he said.
'As long as the bird-lovers are well-behaved, they are welcome to our hotel for a drink or even just to use the toilet.'
The red carpet has been laid out. The hooks will come. But will that be enough to woo the birdmen back?
50-YEAR-OLD CORNER DREW FOREIGNERS
Bird corner started at Tiong Bahru Block 53 about 50 years ago.
Dutch journalist and bird lover Guus van Bladel joins uncles at Tiong Bahru bird corner in late 1980s.
He writes about corner in Dutch newspapers, drawing reporters from Holland, Japan, US and other countries.
Later, friend from Dutch airline KLM gets company to sponsor bird-singing contests.
KLM even provides hooks, number tags for cages.
In 1997, Tanjong Pagar-West Coast Town Council renovates bird corner under $60,000 spruce-up plan.
In 2003, block is put up for redevelopment. Macau-based Hang Huo Enterprise Group, which has businesses in construction and casinos, moves in to build Link Hotel.
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