Singing insects, croaking toads

Sew Ling realised that her mid-thirties body needed some movement in order to keep her health in check. She had never been a sporty person, just the occasional swimming and badminton in her teens, but when she started to feel dizzy every time she bent down and went up again she felt the need to do something. That’s when she started to run, twice a week, usually on Tuesday and Friday, after 6pm to avoid Singapore’s excruciating heat. She designed her own track, running down Bukit Batok West Avenue 6, going around the beautiful hill covered by lush greenery, finally cutting through the new HDB construction site.

That green hill, a small jungle surrounded by tall buildings struck her immediately when she was looking for a place a few months earlier, when she moved to Singapore from China, her country. The smell of the dew and the wild flowers, the many different kinds of trees and plants, the sound of funny birds. That was her little distraction from her daily routine. Sew Ling found curious how that little jungle looked so impenetrable, no paths going through, no benches around, no lights, nothing whatsoever. That was a little strange given Singapore’s approach to blend green and concrete, with so many parks covering the whole island. After all, perhaps it’s best like this, just let nature be, thought Sew Ling.

One day she went running a little later than usual, around 9pm, same track as always. As she ran around the hill Sew Ling noticed a weird sound. That odd noise sounded like a mix between a loud drone, a lawn mower, singing insects and croaking toads. The sound was continuous, it seemed as though a recording was playing from a loudspeaker hidden in the jungle. She slowed down a little where the sound was loudest, just around the crossroad between Bukit Batok West Avenue 9 and 5, but she couldn’t see anything and she moved on. During the following runs, all started at the usual time before sunset, she paid attention at that specific spot, but she didn’t hear that sound again.

A few weeks later, Sew Ling went for a walk to Xiao Gulin, a beautiful park near her place, a former quarry where a small lake provides a still surface for striking reflections. She left home around 6.30pm, just in time to enjoy the orange sunset light at the quarry which amazed her so much. After the sunset she went for dinner at the nearby hawker centre at Bukit Gombak Neighbourhood Centre, one of her favourite places for food. On the way back home, Sew Ling decided to take a short detour to walk around the hill near her place. It was around 9.30pm. As she approached the crossroad between West Avenue 9 and 5, she heard that same weird sound again. “That’s really odd”, she thought, “I often walk or run past this very corner during the day, and never hear this sound”. She stopped and looked around. The dim available light was coming from the street lamps, not enough to see what’s inside the thick jungle, but enough to notice a rusty bike chained to a lamp post. At first Sew Ling wondered why on earth someone would park a bike there, where there’s nothing but a footpath between the road and the hill. It was late, she felt sleepy, she shrugged and went home.

The day after Sew Ling thought about that sound again. After work she went to that spot again. No sound. She then decided to go up all the HDBs surrounding the hill, to try to see anything that might suggest the source of the sound, like a small lake where frogs and toads croaked at night. She started from the new HDB that was just completed, the lifts still wrapped with magazine paper. The view at the 24th floor was stunning. Looking to the right, at a far distance she could see Tengah in its entirety, the undeveloped west area of Singapore. Looking straight ahead, less than a hundred meters away she could see the north-facing edge of the hill, covered with luxuriant tall trees. Although she was very high up she couldn’t see anything. She went down and walked around the hill, reaching the south-east side. She went up another older HDB, one of those old estates with two-story houses. “What a pity they no longer build two-story HDBs, this estate is so cool”, she thought. At the top floor of the building she still could not see anything beyond the tall trees. Closing the loop around the hill she went to another HDB block, but still no luck.

On the way back home Sew Ling asked a few people on the street whether they noticed a weird sound coming at night from the little jungle. A young guy said he didn’t notice but that it was probably just a bunch of toads. The other people she asked were aged 50 and above. They all looked edgy when she mentioned the location of the sound, giving vague answers and walking away briskly. Sew Ling grew increasingly curious about this sound. After dinner, she went again to that place around 9pm. The buzz and hum filled the air. She also noticed a bike chained to a lamp post. It was the same bike she saw the other night, probably the lamp post was the same too. She thought the bike must have been parked and forgotten there for a long time. The morning after she went there to check, but the bike was gone, just like the sound.

She started to search for information on the Internet. First, she checked whether she could see any lakes or ponds from satellite images. Nothing. She dug deeper through the Internet’s folds, finding an old blog post from 2003. The post talked about a park built in the late 70s in Bukit Batok. Back then Bukit Batok was at the edge of West Singapore’s civilisation, and this park was meant to represent the gate towards the future of Singapore. Black and white pictures showed a meticulously curated park with Japanese-inspired wooden gates, picnic areas and shelters, beautifully laid boulders paving a path through a hill, as well as a few god figurines, fountains and other stone decorations. It indeed looked like a marvellous park. The blog post did not mention the exact location, but pinpointed a rough area of the park’s whereabouts. Although Bukit Batok went through dramatic transformations in the past decades, Sew Ling figured out that the park was probably located exactly on the impregnable hill near her place. If she was right, that meant the park was left abandoned, because there were no paths nor any other sign of human trace there. If she was right, why did that happen?

The morning after Sew Ling put on her hiking boots and clothes and headed to the hill. Slowly making her way through thick bushes and low branches, she cut through the jungle. And there was it! The Japanese wooden gate, almost entirely covered with moss and climbing plants. Despite the eerie silence, Sew Ling felt peaceful. She was an adventurous spirit after all. She felt like an archaeologist discovering ancient ruins waiting to be found for hundreds of years, and she loved that feeling. She continued her exploration, finding a fountain and decayed wooden poles marking paths reclaimed by Mother Nature. She also found a copper pot that looked like a sort of cauldron. The pot contained white hash and a few half-burnt twigs and leaves, as well as what looked like the remains of some paper. Sew Ling’s gasped. It was obvious the pot and the fire were recent. Sew Ling decided she had enough for that day and swiftly went back home.

The park’s remains and the pot kept flashing into her mind. That night she couldn’t fall asleep. The hill, the weird sound at night, the abandoned park, it all had started to become an obsession. Sew Ling could not help thinking that the pot and its hashes must be related to the sound. It was 2am, she dressed up to go back to the park. There she found the old bike, chained to the same lamp post. And of course, she heard the sound, continuous, loud though distant, like a swarm of big insects accompanied by a bunch of frogs. She felt brave enough to go in, following the same way she took earlier. After she made her first steps through, the sound stopped. The ghostly silence was too unbearable for Sew Ling, as if revealing all of a sudden the fear she hid underneath the constant sound. She panicked and ran back home.

For the next few days Sew Ling steered clear of the hill. She even stopped running to avoid the temptation to follow the usual track around it. Eventually fear waned, curiosity crept back in. She began to look for information again. Save for the 2003 blog post she read a few days earlier, she could not find anything online. She started to look for news related to the abandoned park in public libraries. A couple of days into her quest, she found a newspaper cut dated 23rd May 1993:

Bukit Batok, West Singapore, May 23 1993

A young girl named Goh Xin Li went missing yesterday around noon at Bukit Batok Hill Park. The girl is 2 years old and was wearing a yellow dress. If you see her or have any news please call 659124.

Bukit Batok Hill Park. That must be the abandoned park. Sew Ling kept looking for other cuts talking about the missing girl, but she couldn’t find any. She then asked the librarian, an elderly lady in her early 70s. She told Sew Ling that the poor girl was never found. Soon after the tragedy people began to shun the park because they believed if was haunted. After a few months the government shut the park down. A year after closure officials decided to leave the park to rot and let nature do its work. The story of the park had become widespread across all Singapore, and nobody dared to propose any redevelopment plans for the area. “That’s remarkable in a land-scarce place like Singapore. The power of ghostly beliefs wins over everything.” thought Sew Ling. She then asked the librarian about the sound. The elderly lady said people knew about it, but everyone was just too scared to check what it really was. “Some people say it is the ghost of the poor Xin Li who cries at night. Officials dismiss the occasional reports as “natural sound”, but the hill is clearly a no-go area and nobody is going to investigate what really that sound is”, continued the librarian.

Sew Ling was not a superstitious person. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but she knew that buzz was not just “natural sound”. Ultimately, she knew something about nature and animals. She was working at the Singapore Zoo as a veterinarian. That was a dream job for her. The job was also a way out from depression after her parents were killed in a car accident in China a year ago. A new job in a new country, a new life.

The night afterwards Sew Ling felt resolute to unveil the source of that mysterious sound. At 10pm she went to the park. The old bike was there, just like the humming sound. This time she made her way through the jungle more quickly, thanks to a machete she bought that day, not just to clear vegetation but to protect herself as well. She followed the sound which brought her to the same spot where she found the cauldron a few days earlier.

At last the source of the sound was before her eyes. Two elderly people, a man and a woman, were performing some kind of ritual. The old man was blowing into a long wooden tube which produced the sound. The old woman was burning twigs, leaves and some paper into the copper pot. The two people looked like an old couple. They looked harmless and deeply sad. Sew Ling stuck a little out to read what was written on the paper the lady was burning: Goh Xin Li. In doing so she made herself visible to the couple. The sound stopped abruptly. The elderly were visibly startled by seeing her. The lady knelt down, her hands pressing the soil hard. “It’s over, it’s finally over” cried the old man.

Sew Ling was speechless, she couldn’t understand what was going on. The old couple, both sobbing, gently approached her. She did not feel scared and let the old woman touch her. The lady’s hand tenderly caressed her face. The lady combed her hair to fully reveal Sew Ling’s birthmark, a diamond-shaped light brown mark on the upper-left corner of her forehead. The old man took a picture from his trousers. It showed a young girl. The man pointed at the girl’s forehead in the picture. A birthmark shaped like a diamond was clearly visible on the faded photograph. Sew Ling took the picture. She was astounded to see how alike that little girl was to herself.

An old question flooded her mind. Why did her parents not have any pictures of her when she was an infant? “Because we lost those pictures”, used to say her parents. Sew Ling had always guessed her parents were ambiguous about that because they adopted her, though they always said she was their natural child. The old question sparked an epiphany. Sew Ling was 2 in the early 90s. She remembered reading about the many children kidnappings in the 90s all around East and South-East Asia. She read children were kidnapped to be given in adoption for a profit, usually in other countries. Never could she have imagined that she was one of those poor children. Whether her adoptive parents knew she was abducted or not, that will always remain a mystery.

After 30 years Bukit Batok Hill Park will be silent at night. The ritual had finally worked. Xin Li was back.