Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Saturday, 12 December 2009

Singapore birds sent to market party

An unusual bird market is held every Sunday on the edge of Singapore's Chinatown, where caged birds are given a respite from their solitary existence, as Christine Finn discovered.

Wooden birdcages
Singapore's bird men took their birds to market so they could "talk"

I was browsing through a book store in Singapore's Arab Quarter when I found the Conference of the Birds by 12th Century Persian poet, Farid Ud-din Attar.

Also known as the Bird Parliament, it is an allegorical Sufi tale of a journey made by 30 birds that convene from all over "with sound of whirring wings and beaks that clashed down like a torrent".

I was reminded that someone had told me about an unusual bird market held every Sunday on the edge of Singapore's Chinatown.

The next morning I set off early and found the location on a busy junction. It did not look too promising. Barely a dozen wooden birdcages were hooked high up on racks, with a few local men talking below. Was I in the right place?

A sign in English asked people not to photograph birds from too close up. Perhaps I'm too early, I thought, and wandered back across the road for a Chinese breakfast of pork curry and rice.

A few more people gathered as I watched. No tourists, but elderly Chinese men arriving with birdcages concealed under floral fabric covers.

'Bird conference'

I went back over and stood for a while before catching the eye of a man who gestured that I should sit down at the table where he'd been drinking strong coffee out of a tin.

Wooden bird-cages hooked onto racks
I watched as one bird was inched further into the party

He told me he was a 70-year-old retired civil servant. He spied my recorder, and said he did not want to give me his name because his wife did not like publicity.

He pointed out his bird, the second one in from the left. It had an ornate carved cage, with small porcelain feeding bowls. The bird was tiny with big white eyes, just like all the other birds hanging there.

The man said he lived in a tower block with no garden, but the singing bird gave him considerable pleasure.

He used to have two until one day, rushing to close the window in a sudden rainstorm he damaged one of the cages and the bird flew away through the gap.

"It made me very sad," he said. "I had it for 10 years." But the one which remained, he conceded, was a better singer.

I asked how much the birds were selling for, to be told that this was less a marketplace and more... he thought about the words... a conference of birds.

Every Sunday morning, the birds were brought down from their tower-block eyries so that they could talk to one another.

I had never really thought of birds in that way, but looking again at the rows of cages with birds chatting animatedly, I realised they were doing just the same as their owners, relishing a respite from a solitary life.

My Singapore bird man told me his wife was not very keen on his hobby.

He picked up a piece of floral material and showed me how he had to drape the cage when the bird was moulting.

"My wife does not like the mess," he said.

Left on edge

A birdcage in front of a tower block
I could not help noticing how the shape of the cage mirrored the tall tower block where he lived

We went back to talking about his cage, bought, he remembered with great clarity in Hong Kong, at a spot overlooking the bay.

He still had the vista in his mind's eye: "I'd like to go back there one day," he told me.

He filled his days at the library, or listening to his bird, enjoying its company. I noticed a sign for a bird-singing competition.

Did he ever enter, I asked? "Oh, no," he said.

"Because if I won, a photographer would be there, and it might end up in the papers."

And his wife wouldn't like it.

I asked him why one caged bird had been placed so far away from the others.

"It's like people," he said.

"Sometimes people are shy if they are new and too timid to join in the conversation, so they are left on the edge, and slowly brought in."

And, sure enough, I watched as one bird was inched further into the party.

It was beginning to rain and my bird man joined his friends putting the floral covers back on the birds, and gathering them into bulging shopping bags.

As he placed the cage with the bird in front of me, I could not help noticing how the shape of the cage mirrored the tall tower block where he lived in the sky with his bird.

The cover was on. "You can photograph him now," said the man.

"He can't see you, to be frightened."

As he turned to go, I was still wondering why his wife seemed less than supportive of what seemed a rather sweet and benign pastime.

So I asked, "Does your wife have any interests, any hobbies?"

The man smiled. "Singing," he said. "More than anything, my wife loves to sing."

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130 GMT. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on BBC iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Country profile: Singapore
27 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific