Scary Beautiful

Heading back to my hotel at dusk in Singapore's chinatown, I decided on a whim to make a detour. The golden light lit up one of the many old shopfronts down a sidestreet painted in an exquisite pairing of colors and I went looking for more. That's where I found an art gallery, painted in a striking deep coral with stripped wooden shutters, it's front yard crowded with a large Frangipani tree. Talk about exquisite pairings, the deep pink flowers riffed off the coral, the branches echoed the brown shutters but syncopated their geometry. I was mesmerized by the artistry of the pairing and wondered about it's provenance, was it inherited, beautiful happenstance or a series of considered choices by the artist who owns the gallery.

The next day at the Peranakan Museum another wonderful pairing with a different vibe. This time a yellow Frangipani that harmonized beautifully with the pale blue and green paint tones, the glossy leaves echoing the dark green ceramic banisters. This time the arch of the branches complemented the building's archways and the leaf detail plaster accents softened its contrast with the rhythmic lines of the building. What extraordinarily good luck to find two great examples of nature and architecture combined.

Despite the beauty of these Frangipani trees, they always arouse a sense of conflict with me, a quick search reminded me why. In this part of the world they are also known as the Graveyard Tree and it extends to the neighbouring countries too where they are also associated with ghosts, graveyards and funerals. Their branches apparently shelter demons, their scent attracting vampires. Silly, of course they don't. Since then I've seen the flowers threaded into Hawaian leis and known their familiar scent evoked in Nag Champa a hippie, counter culture essential. Walk down any touristy street, St Marks Place, New York City or Haight Ashbury, San Francisco and the waft of this popular incense is omnipresent. The positive associations abound and many homes here, now have pretty minature trees in pots. But still, it's hard to shake off these embedded childhood associations.

Rabindrath Tagore's 'The Champa Flower' captures the experience of this tree well, how passing under it you might find a fallen blossom and notice a scent that makes you look up. That might be the root of its legend as the scent is strongest at night and you're more likely to look up at the eerie embrace of its branches in search of the source of its rich (ghostly?) sweet smell.

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