Bonsai Nurseries in Singapore

Bonsai Nurseries in Singapore

Published: 2024.05.13
Accepted: 2024.04.29
34
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

The bonsai movement in Singapore is influenced by both Japan and China and also by indigenous developments. Some of the first bonsai works in Singapore can be found in Buddhist temples. Today, some of Singapore's natural sceneries, public parks or secondary forests serve as inspirations for penjing creations. One of the progenitors of this art-form is a Chinese migrant and bonsai master by the name of Yee-sun Wu who popularized this art-form in Singapore. Many fans, enthusiasts, consumers, practitioners and masters today either create their own works or buy from commercial nurseries. The art-form now forms the basis of gatherings in community clubs, neighborhood urban gardens, public housing gardens, etc. Bonsai nurseries today provide much more than retailing bonsai activities. Their services include landscaping, rock pairing, wedding locales, relaxation zen areas, Instagram sites, etc. A number of major nurseries have now become the main players in this industry in Singapore. This industry is growing alongside trends in environmental awareness, growing wealth to spend on aesthetics, etc. and bonsai professionals have emerged to meet the consumer demand in this trendy boom. The boom has evolved into other new-age bonsai cultivation trends such as super mini bonsais, jungle home boom and pop bonsai. Some popular books feed these trends.

Keywords: bonsai, Singapore, nurseries, miniaturization, dwarf

BACKGROUND

Bonsai is the Japanese art-form of cultivating, dwarfing, miniaturizing and training trees in pots that has genesis in the traditional Chinese cultivation technique of penjing although the subtle differences are that penjing methods create completely natural scenery in small pots that imitate the aesthetic shapes of actual physical scenery, while bonsai creates dwarfed trees that emulate the shape of actual trees in nature (DBMR, 2023). The word "bonsai" was incorporated into English to mean miniaturized potted botanicals and connotes long-term cultivation and shaping of dwarfed trees growing in an aesthetic container (DBMR, 2023). By definition, a bonsai is grown using source material in the form of a cutting, seedling, or small tree that has been proven to be suitable for bonsai (e.g. perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrubs with true branches that is confinable to small containers with root pruning) (DBMR, 2023). In Singapore, bonsai lovers typically either learn how to cultivate/pot by themselves or acquire a completed work from a commercial nursery.

From the mid-20th to the 21st century, bonsai is expanding in the Asia-Pacific as an interest, particularly in Japan and China that have a love for nature but it has also been used for utilitarian purposes like indoor aesthetics, maintaining good living standards in urbanized environments, keeping the ecosystem in balance, environment well-being, contributions made to sustainable development, etc. (DBMR, 2023). The genesis of bonsai trees is more than a millennia ago before the art-form migrated from China to Japan and in those Northeast Asian countries, bonsai trees represent patience and perseverance arising from the long period of time and meticulous nurturing it takes for bonsai to grow, and it is also a symbol of beautiful and miniaturized objects (DBMR, 2023). Some traditional bonsai practitioners also believe that miniaturizing cultivation represent the downsizing of "human foibles such as greed and self-centered thinking" (The Little Bonsai, 2020).

The bonsai industry has expanded in scope, products and services. Firms, distributors, suppliers and retailers are offering bonsai-related design services, landscape construction (made up of cost-effective plants/shrubs species), advisory on the optimal bonsai species (e.g. low maintenance, low costs features) for tension reduction and efficiency maximization (DBMR, 2023). The industry and its activities also help to bring awareness to external environmental issues like “climate change, rising room temperature, and depletion of soil layers” (DBMR, 2023). Individual hobbyists and planters are capitalizing on their techniques in cultivating aesthetically attractive bonsai for earning their salaries and incomes while capitalizing on the booming trend (DBMR, 2023). In terms of species, the Asia-Pacific bonsai market is divided into indoor species, outdoor species, deciduous tree species, needle tree species, and tree species with flowers in addition to autonomous categories of landscape and stumps (DBMR, 2023).

There had been recent market changes worth noting. The aesthetic attraction of tree miniaturization has gained momentum in proliferating globally in 2024 due to the impact of rapid urbanization in reducing agricultural spaces, motivating urbanites to plant bonsai to integrate miniaturized greenery within their restrictive residential spaces (Cision PR Newswire Research and Markets, 2024). The trend in post-pandemic bonsai revivalism appears to be global with the Asia-Pacific region dominating the industry due to cultural affinity, but the industry is also experiencing growth in Europe and North America as well due to the prevalence of high disposable income and strengthening interest in this unique horticulture (Cision PR Newswire Research and Markets, 2024).

In the case of Japan (historically associated with the art of bonsai), there is also growing interest amongst youngsters for bonsai culture, shaking off the image that it is a past-time connected with elderly generations (Kashiwa, 2024). Bonsai distributor Sekibokka in Murayama, Yamagata Prefecture has been advising the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) since 2021 on overseas bonsai business (Kashiwa, 2024). The semi-government JETRO announced that: “Bonsai is a part of Japanese culture that attracts a lot of attention from overseas. There are stores in other prefectures that export bonsai to Europe, where quarantine procedures are strict, and we will support Sekibokka’s global expansion.” (Kashiwa, 2024)

Singapore is also aligned with such global trends in increased interest in bonsai horticulture. In line with urbanites’ attraction to bonsai for cultivation in limited residential spaces, introduction of greenery into city dwellers’ residences and growing amateurs/youngsters’ interest in bonsai, the government of Singapore, through its Housing Development Board (HDB)’s online platform, also introduced useful online guides to teach Singaporeans to blend bonsai aesthetics into urban public housing apartments (known as ‘flats’ in Singapore) (Muhammad, 2024). Such aesthetic guides are important given that 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB apartments (HDB, 2024), thus such guides are useful to support urbanite consumption of bonsai plants with useful tips on care, maintenance and cultivation of these plants (Muhammad, 2024).

The state’s National Parks’ (NParks) authority has also mobilized gardeners to design the 2CG community gardens in Singapore (one of its largest) featuring the first popular bonsai theme park (Fong, 2014). The People’s Association (PA) which is the state’s largest grassroots community mobilization institution also work with individual community clubs (CCs) and their Bonsai Clubs (whose members enjoy lifetime membership) like the branch in the Ayer Rajah CC and its Organizing Committee to manage Bonsai Gardens (onePA Ayer Rajah CC, 2024). These gardens are accessible every day for residents and bonsai enthusiasts to study and appreciate Bonsai cultivation (onePA Ayer Rajah CC, 2024). Besides mass mobilization of community groups, top politicians in Singapore also utilized the symbolism of bonsai to commemorate important environmentally-themed public events like Tree Planting Day, e.g. Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong planted a bonsai tree at a Hougang rooftop garden on 1 Nov 2020 (Ang, 2020). This was characterized by the national broadsheet newspaper of record The Straits Times as “an occasion that scored several firsts in the history of the annual event”, including the first time that a tree planting occasion was organized at a rooftop garden and a pioneering moment when the bonsai plants were utilized for the first time (Ang, 2020).

Using gardening shovels, PM Lee and Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Members of Parliament (MPs) like Darryl David, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Nadia Ahmad Samdin and Ng Ling Ling planted 10 Podocarpus macrophyllus Buddhist pine bonsais at the Block 933 Hougang Avenue 9 carpark rooftop garden (Ang, 2020). Kebun Baru Single Member Constituency (SMC) Member of Parliament (MP) Henry Kwek and Yio Chu Kang SMC MP Yip Hon Weng were also in attendance (Ang, 2020). The event was streamed live on the Ang Mo Kio Town Council's Facebook platform and it attracted approximately 13,000 hits as by 11:30am on the same day (Ang, 2020). Through such support (social mobilization, political leadership symbolism and grassroots volunteerism), Singapore positions itself to lead sustainable community interest in the bonsai industry.

Some bonsai fans believe that the first penjing bonsai arrived in Singapore via maritime trade routes with some penjing bonsai on display at Singaporean Buddhist temples and one of the pioneers in this area Yee-sun Wu, a well-known bonsai master migrant from China (The Little Bonsai, 2020). Wu was said to have evangelized the art-form and founded the Singapore Bonsai Society in 1972 and thereafter, bonsai knowledge developed and advanced in Singapore, expanding through a proliferation of bonsai clubs, exhibitions and workshops for amateurs and veterans exchanging information with each other (The Little Bonsai, 2020).

There continues to be dedicated local fandom of bonsai in Singapore. Some of them like Goh Hay Leng have started to develop a website to attract other fans to exchange their information and experiences in cultivating bonsai while displaying photos of their own potted works (Goh, “About”, 2015). They also share information on the cutting and shaping methodologies, creative designs for their works, the miniaturization process, cultivating premature bonsai seedlings, acquisitions of fully-cultivate plants from Singaporean nurseries, etc. (Goh, “About”, 2015). These fans detail bonsai growing in local community neighbourhoods, share the joys of enjoying natural botanicals in dwarfed scales and even form friendships in the local community gardens (Goh, “About”, 2015) that dot the various Housing Development Board (HDB) and private estates in Singapore. The HDB flats in Singapore denote the public housing estates where the vast majority of Singaporeans reside.

Some of these fans cultivate "Super Mini Bonsai" in their high-rise spaces which are densely-populated, the term denoting bonsai plants that are approximately 3 cm tall and grown in a free-style manner unconstrained by traditional conventions and rules in bonsai cultivation (Goh, “Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood”, 2015). For the bonsai fans, part of the joy for the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) bonsai fandom is that it is interesting for them to complement the plant with a wide array of pottery pots as well as other kinds of kawaii (cute) and/or artistic plant holders like cups (Goh, “Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood”, 2015).

Some fans were also inspired by ethnic Japanese bonsai planters and their publications like "Pop Bonsai" by Lisa Tajima or turn to the Internet, secondary publications, or public nature parks, reservoirs, and even highways for inspirations in creating their works (Goh, "Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood", 2015). There are iconic scenic areas in Singapore that can inspire bonsai creations, e.g. the 7-storey Chinese pagoda in Singapore's Jurong Lake Gardens public park (The Little Bonsai, 2020). Another book recommended by local bonsai practitioners, fans and enthusiasts is "The Complete Book of Bonsai" which some regarded as the "Bible for beginners and intermediate bonsai enthusiasts", with contents on bonsai methodologies, pruning, wiring, species guide (The Little Bonsai, 2020).

Tajima’s “pop bonsai” movement is about creating bonsai that disregards existing conventions about what bonsai should be and how it is cultivated, it focuses rather on creating and presenting bonsais in ways that is creative and leaves much space for planters to explore their own imaginations and creativity (Kinokuniya, 2004). It is a free-style movement created in pots that are ornate and have fun designs while breaking away from its long traditions by growing bonsais from young seedlings, shaping its growth through cutting its branches and leaves, and wiring the dwarfed tree trunk and branches to twist them into any presentation shapes while enjoying an artwork that is virtually free (Kinokuniya, 2004).

Singaporean bonsai fans have to decide whether to cultivate bonsai from seeds (and enjoy the joys of watching the plant grow from genesis but may encounter failures or ignorance in cultivation methods), or spend money (sometimes costly) to acquire a semi-matured or a fully-grown adult plant (admiring a professional work of art but may not learn fully from the experience of cultivating a plant) (Goh, "Bonsai in Singapore Neighbourhood", 2015). Shui mei (water jasmine or Wrightia religiosa) is a popular bonsai plant that has proven hardy for cultivation in Singapore’s tropical weather and often a start plant species for amateur bonsai cultivators.

The joys of bonsai plant involve "training" it to become a miniature plant but it may require space (most Singaporeans do not have a backyard that has full access to natural sunlight and fresh air circulation) and monetary resources for the cultivation process (Goh, "Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood", 2015). Some fans join the local bonsai clubs at one of Community Centres (CCs) for free and then gain access to the public community garden (Goh, "Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood", 2015) for the cultivation process, enjoying a large open-air space, getting advice from veteran planters and making friends along the way. CCs are run by the government agency of the People's Association (PA) and function as neighborhood community clubs for residents living in proximity.

But purchasing a half-grown or full-grown plant may cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, making it accessible only to the wealthy (Goh, "Bonsai in Singapore Neighborhood", 2015). In terms of the option of acquisition and purchases, that is where the professional bonsai nurseries in Singapore come into play. Some bonsai consumers, fans and enthusiasts highlight nurseries such as Jia Bonsai at 86 Meng Suan Rd., Singapore 779273 and Boh Bonsai at 16 Lengkok Mariam, Singapore 509119 (for works with more artistic flair) as places to go to acquire reasonable Japanese bonsai, and their works are also purchasable in the exhibitions organized by the two commercial outfits (The Little Bonsai, 2020). [These two locations mean that Singaporeans can enjoy access to bonsai retail outlets easily as Meng Suan is located at the far northern near the secondary forested areas of Mandai, Seletar and Nee Soon regions while Lengkok Marium is smack right in the immediate outskirts of the Central Business District area or CBD. Thus, bonsai nurseries are equally accessible to both urbanites and suburbanites.]

CASE STUDIES OF URBAN BONSAI NURSERIES

Some self-professed "bonsai otakus (zhainan in Mandarin meaning hardcore bonsai fans, a play on the word usually referring to popular cultural fandom)" curated and documented their observation studies of the Singapore bonsai scene. One bonsai haunt is “Bonsai Gallery” operated by a father-and-son group made up of individuals who are "jovial and friendly people, passionate about bonsai" who first started their business as a side interest before turning professional (Bonsai Skosh, 2012). Well-frequented Bonsai Gallery was established in 2005 and its facilities located at 24 Bah Soon Pah Road, Singapore 769968 reveal the little-known secrets of the trade, alongside retail sales (The Little Bonsai, 2020).

Many Singaporean nurseries import their plants from Japan and China, including taller 2.5 m height Podocarpus imported (from Japan, costing SG$88,000 or approximately US$65,505), tropicalized evergreen "Ponamella fragilia" (from Hainan Island, China that is suitable for Singaporean climate and can stay alive indoors for half a year) and dwarfed natural trees wrapped around bonsai rocks (Bonsai Skosh, 2012). More than 2,000 bonsai trees were imported from China to Singapore and other regions (The Little Nonsai, 2020).

In Singapore, bonsai horticultural trends have also become associated with hipster trends. Co-owner Ivan Woo of Soilboy in Sin Ming Road wants to capitalize on these trends by carefully selected their products (including the pots that the bonsai products are grown in): “Our selection is now very curated. The pots are very important because customers want them to match their interiors. We sell plants that are easy to maintain and can grow indoors…They [the products] fit the vibe we want.” (Sim, 2023). As for supply chains, besides China and Japan, Singapore has also reached out to South Korea for specialized contemporary bonsai pots.

Displayed on a timber platform in the middle of the shop are the Sekka Hinoki Bonsai planted in fashionable hand-fired pots from South Korea with a spectrum of designs and earth tones starting from a cost of S$40 (approximately US$30) (Sim, 2023). Woo indicated that his customers’ profiles are mainly married couples in their late 20s to 40s keen to decorate their homes, thus the prices are pegged to the earning power of these young couples, e.g. the Sekka Hinoki Bonsai in Soilboy Flat Planter goes for between S$228 to S$298 or US$170 to US$222) (Sim, 2023). Soilboy’s Sekka Hinoki Bonsai is a slow-growing Japanese evergreen tree and a top seller, with supply chains for this plant emanating from Japan (Sim, 2023).

Leo Tay (44 years old) of The 3 Keys nursery in Joan Road also began selling another contemporary bonsai hipster plant like the Pithecellobium confertum, or Everfresh Tree since 2017 and his company offers a wide variety of the Everfresh tree from young saplings to older trees with prices ranging from S$38 (approximately US$28) to the latter at S$1,600 (approximately US$1,191) (Sim, 2023). Tay value adds to his products as a plant stylist who fashion such plants to look Zen by cultivating the popular tree as a bonsai in small ornamental pots like a bonsai and utilizing bonsai wires to create “dramatic sweeping branches” (Sim, 2023). This opens up a whole new profession of a “plant stylist” who provides tailored styling services such as pot selection or advising homeowners/decorators in locating the perfect “statement tree” and collaborating with a local pottery studio to hand-fire artisanal pots (Sim, 2023).

Besides nurseries and bonsai stylists, another source of bonsai plants is popular retail outlets. Donki stores in Singapore imported Cherry Blossom Bonsai Trees direct from Kyoto for a price tag of S$450 (approximately US$335) onwards (GDS Editorial, 2021). The marketing tagline for such trees is the ability to “Bring Japanese sakura back home instead” by “Get[ting] yourself a cherry blossom bonsai so you won’t miss Japan this year.” (GDS Editorial, 2021). It is a novel marketing idea to transplant the Japanese tour experience to enjoy sakuras in full bloom to one’s living room and even favourably compares the bonsai price tag with a much more exorbitant air ticket to Japan (GDS Editorial, 2021).

Working with Donki is a major player in this area of importing premium bonsai plants, Omuro Singapore has expertise in bonsai and interior products from Kyoto, Japan and even organizes sale shows in Isetan and Takashimaya (GDS Editorial, 2021). For higher income bonsai enthusiasts, other premium options offered by Donki include Kyoto Goyo Pine (京 五葉松), Kyoto Black Pine (京 黒松), Kyoto Shinpaku Juniper(京 真柏) with a much higher price tag but presented in limited quantities exclusively for customers (GDS Editorial, 2021).

Overall, based on the detailed introduction of Bonsai history and its development in Singapore, the existing market value chain are formed by three routes: Singaporean nurseries importing trees and plants direct from Japan, China and Taiwan (and now increasingly hipster hand-fire pots from South Korea as well); direct selling via e-commerce websites like Aliexpress (including even imitation bonsai products made of plastic) that comes with free shipping; and brick and mortar shops (e.g. popular retail outlets like Donki). The proliferation of bonsai sourcing options benefits importers as well as plant stylists/growers as it stimulates market competition to present the best deals for nurseries, customers and plant stylists/growers (e.g. potting equipment) alike.

CONCLUDING REMARKS: MULTIPLE FUNCTIONS OF BONSAI NURSERIES

Some of the nurseries where bonsais were farmed also doubled up as plant retailers, family bonding spots and wedding photo settings. For example, the serene Chengtai Nursery sited at 51 Sungei Tengah in north-western Singapore was established in 1990 by director Tan Kim Kwang and it retails a broad array of botanicals that fed the jungle home boom (or house jungle, basically turning one’s home into a plant-filled environment) trend while traditionally supplying landscapers and rockwork designers (Ng, 2021). The nine-acre facility showcases one of Singapore’s largest bonsai gardens with 2,800 bonsai plants, including sculptural plants amidst the numerous gazebos that shelter visitors from the harsh weathers while offering them Instagram-quality settings (Ng, 2021). Bonsai enthusiasts and customers visit the facility to purchase plants, particularly popular low-maintenance indoor plants like Ficus lyrata, Pachira and Sansevieria while resting in the attractive bonsai-laden landscape for "family bonding time" or pose for wedding shots (Ng, 2021).

REFERENCES

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Bonsai Skosh. Bonsai Gallery, Singapore. Bonsai Skosh 25 July 2012. Retrieved from http://lomov.blogspot.com/2012/07/bonsai-gallery-singapore.html

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