SINGAPORE: A couple of weeks ago, joggers and hikers at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve may have spotted a growling ape-like creature with long white hair.
A rare sighting of the infamous Bukit Timah Monkey Man? Not quite.
It’s actually musician and artist Rizman Putra putting on his best impression of Singapore’s mystery monster, as part of a new short film-cum-music video by his group, music duo NADA, and visual artist Brandon Tay.
The work, which is titled In Search Of The Bukit Timah Monkey Man, presents a fictional, psychedelic encounter with the elusive creature. Together with another video piece by DJ KoFlow, it will premiere at next month’s Aliwal Urban Art Festival during Singapore Art Week.
Both pieces were commissioned by Goethe-Institut Singapore under its new Sound Of the City project to create audio-visual “portraits” of Singapore.
Instead of looking to the more urban aspects of the city, NADA and Tay set their sights on the nature reserve – and its most famous wild “resident”.
The so-called Monkey Man has been one of the country’s most enduring, albeit lesser-known urban legends, with reported sightings that stretch back all the way to the 1800s and even as recent as the mid-2000s.
The group was inspired to tackle the legend because of the unusual circumstances that surround it: How does the story of a cryptid (or an animal whose existence can’t be verified) persist in a small patch of rainforest in the middle of an affluent neighbourhood?
“The curious thing about Bukit Timah and the legend of the Monkey Man is that it’s been very consistent through the years. There’s always been this story about a mysterious creature in this very small area. We thought was a very interesting counterpoint when thinking about a city. It’s very symbolic of the ‘other’,” said Tay.
The oddness also struck NADA member Safuan Johari, who had earlier gone on several trips inside to record ambient nature and animal sounds.
“It’s not a very deep area – it’s only a few kilometres big – which is why (the legend) is strange. When you’re thinking about where the Monkey Man can hide, there’s really not a lot of places,” he said, adding that that the only animals they saw were lots of birds, monitor lizards, and real monkeys.
Most of the time, the group had to use their imagination – which in a way, was exactly the point.
“It really doesn’t matter if something is real or not but the most important thing is it sparks conversations,” said Safuan.
In fact, Tay added, it might easier to understand why the legend exists if we treat the Monkey Man not as an actual animal but a kind of supernatural “manifestation” that reflects a society’s subconscious thoughts.
He pointed out, for example, sporadic spates of monkey man sightings in India during less-than-peaceful times.
Meanwhile, Safuan added that the Monkey Man story – this unpredictable creature in the middle of the wild – could also be a symbolic contrast to Singapore’s own image as a Garden City, where most of the greenery is meticulously controlled.
But the group also pointed out that such oral folklore or urban legends may be in danger of disappearing.
“I think it’s the older generation who would know all these stories,” said Rizman, who recalled how his parents and grandparents would share stories of a supposed white tiger in MacRitchie Reservoir or how orang bunian (elves) would cross Lornie Road in the middle of the night.
“They knew these stories so well because back then you had all these forested areas with kampongs around them.”
Today, discovering such previous nuggets of stories can be difficult. While working on their Monkey Man project, the group had a hard time finding research materials: A handful of accounts – including those by Japanese soldiers during World War II – and a book that briefly mentions the monkey man alongside the likes of the Yeti and Sasquatch.
“When you hear these fragments, so much is missing and you have to reconstruct it,” said Tay, who added that they hope the film they’ve made becomes a way to “continue the legend”.
And what if this so-called legend is actually true? What would they do if they come face to face with an actual Bukit Timah Monkey Man?
“I’ll take out my phone!” quipped Rizman.