Sunday, 8 June 2014

Zheng He Voyages in SEA Aquarium

A Walk Down the Memory Lane of the Maritime Silk Road. Aquaphobic Kingdom in SEA Aquarium.


I'm not an aquarium goer. But when somebody offers you a free ticket, it would be rude to refuse.

S.E.A. Aquarium is the world's largest aquarium (for now), which is sort of makes sense. Because Singapore already has an Underwater World in Sentosa Island since 1991, the new aquarium must have something better to offer. The bigger the better in this case. Bigger water tanks, more fishes, more variety of species of marine life, etc. They even added a museum and a cinema.

map of S.E.A. Aquarium, Singapore
map of Aquarium
(click image to enlarge)

The aquarium is essentially 3 things rolled into 1. This is to cater for different age and interest groups. These additional things are what sets S.E.A. Aquarium apart from your typical aquariums. If aquarium is all you're interested, just skip the other additional things.

Maritime Experiential Museum

On entering the aquarium at the street level, you're in what essentially a maritime museum area, which shows the the history of trading nations in the maritime silk road. This is probably more appealing to the seniors, mums and dads than the kids.

Despite being an international port city, an island, a city-state whose history is so closely intertwined with maritime history, it has no independent maritime museum (perhaps Singapore being younger than me is one of the reason), until now. This museum is finally answered that call.

Wax figures in the Maritime Experiential Museum, S.E.A. Aquarium, Singapore
Wax figures showing ethnic costumes. So life-like that it looks eerie

Henna hand painting, S.E.A. Aquarium
Henna hand painting. Popular with the kiddies

Bedouin riding a camel, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Bedouin riding a camel

Arabian shoes
Arabian shoes

Typhoon Theatre

At the end of this section is the Typhoon Theatre. During off-peak period, admission is free. Otherwise you're charged with a $10 admission. This - I thought - is a good idea to control the traffic in this theatre within the larger aquarium.

This is a so called 4D multimedia theatre, which is similar to the Sentosa 4D Magix locates at the Imbiah Lookout (not far from here). As with most such 4D cinemas, you will be watching a tall screen in 3D. The "4th dimensional" comes from the experience you get from the chairs you're sitting. In this Typhoon Theatre - as well as Sentosa 4D Magix - expect to get wet. The idea is to experiences with all your senses (wetness is one of them).

From there, you walk down to B1 to the Zheng He exhibits.

Zheng He's Exhibits

The centre piece of the Maritime Experiential  Museum is the cutaway of a life-size Zheng He's Treasure Ship (or Bao Chuan 寶船). It's so large that it's placed in the atrium, taking up 2 levels.

The following photos aren't showing the inside of Noah's Ark (quite understandable), but Zheng He's Bao Chuan that carrying exotic animals, herbs and spices that he collected during his grand expeditions.

The most stand-out  (no pun intended) "catch" in his ship is the pair of giraffes. The Ming court mistakenly identified them as the ancient Chinese mythical creature. In fact, one of the motives for the returning voyages to Indian Ocean was to fetch these fabled giraffes. Other exotic animals like the rhinos (see photos below) were also taken back to Ming court.

Pet giraffe presented to emperor Yongle
by the ruler of Bengal
source: wikipedia

Cutaway showing the interior of Bao Chuan, Maritime Experiential Museum, S.E.A Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Cutaway showing the interior of The Treasure Ship

Cutaway of Zheng He's Treasure Ship showing animals and spices, Maritime Experiential Museum, S.E.A Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Cutaway of Zheng He's Treasure Ship showing its treasured cargo of exotic animals and spices

The animals give you the scale of the enormous size of this 15th century Chinese junk. To give the sense of the technological cutting edge of this ship built during this period, let's compare it with the Christopher Columbus' flagship Santa Maria. Bear in mind that this Chinese junk was built more than half a century before Santa Maria that "first" discovered America.

Comparison of Zheng He's admiral ship with Christopher Columbus' flagship Santa Maria

I guess you would appreciate Zheng He's exhibits more if you have a bit more background knowledge.

There're a few good reasons why Zheng He's exhibits are chosen not the least because these expeditionary voyages have a big following in Singapore. It's also very impressive to look at, and Singapore is proud of its association in these historical voyages.

Zheng He's Great Armanda of Chinese junks during the expeditionary voyages, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Zheng He's Great Armada of Chinese junks during the expeditionary voyage

Dragon Teeth Gate (Long Ya Men 龙牙门) - a craggy granite outcrop at Keppel Harbour in Singapore - was used by Zheng He as a landmark during his voyages. Ancient Chinese navigational charts were quite different from Western ones. It consisted of landmarks that help them to chart their course. Long Ya Men is one such a landmark.

This landmark had been destroyed by the British to widen the channel (very symbolic act as you shall see after reading the rest of this article). A replica of this rocky outcrop was recreated, and placed in the Labrador Park to commemorate Zheng He's 600th Anniversary Celebration in 2005. The location of this replica isn't very far from its original location.

This symbolic gesture shows Singapore's affinity to Zheng He's voyages. And hence this exhibit as a centre piece of this museum.

Zheng He was a very unique naval admiral in 2 ways - being a eunuch and a Muslim. But much more unique is the voyages itself for 2 reasons: China had been an isolationist for millennium, and had never been a naval power up until then, and since. This naval power projection was unique, almost like a spark in the dark night of Chinese long isolationism.

While the Silk Road linked China to the West, few ancient Chinese used it to venture out to Europe.  While Marco Polo visited China, no Chinese visited Europe. The Silk Road existed to only serve Chinese as a trading route for exporting their goods.

Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China

The long Great Wall of China is a perfect example of the long Chinese history, and an ultimate expression of these 2 things - isolationism and terrestrial power (as supposed to naval one). The Great Wall stretches across its northern border, and it's stopped dead where the land meets the ocean. Neither ancient Japan nor Korean were great naval powers, so these 2 ancient kingdoms never posed any threats to the Chinese imperial courts.

One of the peoples that the Han Chinese wanted to barricade with the Great Wall was the Manchus, who lived at the north-east corner of China just the other side of the Great Wall. Geographically, they live at the coast. They could easily circumvent thousands of miles of the Great Wall with ships that only needed to sail a few nautical miles to reach behind the Great Wall. Funny enough, that never took place. Because the Manchus (or any other continental ethnic Chinese), like the Hans were also sea-fearing, not sea-faring people.

They fight on horse backs, not ships. This aversion of the blue-water led to some very basic military blind spot. Of course, if any of the ethnic groups north of the Great Wall was a sea-faring people, the Great Wall would likely be extended along the coast line. Of course, it's much faster for the Manchus to build ships than the Chinese to build the defense wall along the coast. But there you have it, the thought never cross the Manchus' mind. (Having said that, the Manchu was able to get through the Great Wall of China because the General Wu open the gates for the Manchu forces. The Great Wall of China is only as strong as the weakest link. And the weakest link is of course people).

When the invaders are great naval power like the British Empire, the Chinese (now ruled by the Manchus who had overthrown the Ming dynasty by waltzing into the Great Wall) had no experience in fighting such naval invasion, and lost dismally. If the Chinese anticipated this ("the British are coming" - Paul Revere), they would probably extend the Great Wall along the coast as well. Mind you, the Great Wall that was built many centuries earlier wouldn't make good defense against the 19th century canons any more, anyway.

So it's a very unique moment in ancient Chinese history for this inward-looking, sea-fearing 15th century dynastic empire that suddenly decided to engage the rest of the known world, and did so with mammoth seagoing vessels instead of along the traditional terrestrial silk road.

The 15th century sown the seeds of a new world order where economic powers had been shifted from the terrestrial Silk Road in the East (Chinese dynastic empires, Ottoman Empire) to the maritime Silk Road of the West (Portuguese, Spain, France, Netherlands, and Britannia - each enjoyed roughly a century of empire between the 14th to the 20th century).

The very century when Zheng He launched these voyages, Christopher Columbus "first" discovered the New World. Incidentally or ironically, Columbus sailed towards America in search of an undiscovered sea routes to the Orient, especially China (he was very much inspired by Marco Polo's tales as one would expect). You could say the search of China gave birth to USA. The path of Chinese history would had been so drastically different if these voyages weren't abruptly stopped (soon after it started), but continued in deeper and more frequent trading engagements.

The late 20th century is the new late 15th century where there's a gradual power reverse shifts between the the 2 East-West hemispheres. Perhaps, this is another reason for the keen interest in the history of Zheng He (by both scholars East and West).

Isolationism and lack of naval development are 2 sides of the same coin. Even in 20th century, especially during the Mao Era, it had developed nuclear weapons and even space technology, but there was no blue water navy. Not until 21st century when China's international trading demanded a well developed navy. And China was the only member in the UN's P5 that didn't have a single aircraft carrier until practically the 21st century when they bought one from Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine has several, and had a spared one to sell to China.

This naval development isn't implying that China is giving up their isolationism any time soon, but simply out of the same fear that China always faced: invading forces. Only in this century, these invaders are much more further afield, if they come (of course, there won't be any. But this is the new game of geopolitics of arms race not dissimilar to those during the Cold War), they come in ships.

Oh, did I mention that China is the largest shipbuilder in the world by 2013 ? One should expect that from the world's factory. Think about it, China is the largest shipbuilder in the world, and yet they only have one aircraft carrier by 2013.

The logical follow-up question would be, "why the Chinese was never a great naval power?" The answer is certainly not because they weren't capable of building great ships (then or now). The short answer is because of the size of China. A longer answer is because there were always neighbouring ethnic groups who nibbled at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom to keep the Imperial courts way too busy to look beyond the shoreline. Chinese ancient history is a history of the established central powers throughout time trying to fend off neighbouring invading forces (Manchus, Mongols, Tartars, Tibetans, Turkics, etc) since the formation of the first dynastic empire of Qin. This article explored more on this.

USA before WW2 was an isolationist. And then Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, which isn't just one of the worst military blunder in 20th century, it's also a pivotal moment for American modern history, and the shape of the global geopolitical landscape. Before this, USA was an isolationist, afterwards, it became an interventionist, for good or bad.

There's no doubt that this part of the exhibit is very much appeal to the seniors - or senior at hearts like myself. Most older visitors sat at the bleacher admiring the gigantic Treasure Ship hanging precariously on the ceiling of the museum.

While I was engrossed in the Zheng He's exhibits, lost in musings of the historical analysis, I was being dragged away, with a stern warning, that we hadn't even got to the aquarium yet. I must not forget that we were going to an aquarium, not museum. Mind you, I didn't know about the existence of this museum within the S.E.A. Aquarium.


It's much larger than the Sydney Aquarium I went to if I remembered correctly (as I only remember vaguely because it's such a long time ago).

The variety of species are quite impressive. The various aquarium displays are designed for ease of photography. As much as such effort are made, taking photos in aquariums are very challenging. Here is an article with some photography tips that hopefully help a little.

Stingray, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Smiley face of a stingray

ocean gallery, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
One of the large ocean gallery

The Dome, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
The Dome, this locates inside the largest ocean gallery

Angelfish eating corral, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Angelfish eating corral

Leopard sharks
Leopard sharks

sardines, S.E.A. Aquarium, Sentosa, Singapore
Packed like sardines. They're used to this crammed condition before being put into tins.

Don't forget to turn on closed captions and volume when watching the following videos.

Read my review on Underwater World for comparison.

No comments:

Post a Comment