AS MODERN Singapore grew around it, the towering ficus tree stood firm.
For four decades, it bore witness to the prayers and dreams of devotees who worshipped at a Buddhist shrine at its foot.
That was until last week, when a storm brought the six-storey landmark in Toa Payoh Central crashing to the ground.
For worshippers drawn to its Goddess of Mercy statue and four-faced Buddha, the collapse of the great tree seemed to signal the end of an era.
But the area's residents are not ready to let go just yet.
Toa Payoh Central Merchants' Association told The Straits Times that it plans to erect a new shrine by Chinese New Year, with the remaining parts of the ficus as its backdrop.
''We will rebuild the shrine so residents here can continue to be protected by the gods,'' said vice-chairman Lim Kok Siong, 66.
Regarded by believers as a ''shen shu'' - or ''god tree'' in Mandarin - the ficus was said to be more than a century old. The mighty tree pre-dated Toa Payoh New Town itself, on which work began in 1965.
Its shrine, known as Ci Ern Ge, was added soon after the town was built.
Now, only a part of the trunk is left after the tree toppled during the storm - damaging cars but causing no injuries.
The Housing Board and Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council are helping to stabilise the tree's remains.
On Wednesday, residents continued to linger at the spot where it fell, some out of sheer habit and others to trade tales and memories.
They shared stories of how the tree stood the test of time, weathering the occasional thunderstorm and dodging the developer's axe.
Retiree Foo Ah Cheng, 78, remembered seeing bulldozers try in vain to fell the ficus as the new town was being built.
He said monks even offered prayers calling for the tree to give way.
''They wanted to get rid of it, but it wouldn't go,'' he said in Mandarin.
Residents believe the Government wanted to build a long row of shophouses, but split the development in two to accommodate the ficus.
From its precarious past grew longevity. Over the past decades, a steady stream of devotees have offered prayers for goodwill each time they passed the shrine. Some believe it was responsible for 4-D lottery windfalls.
Even the tree's leafy crown seemed to extend goodwill to residents. Mr Foo recalled how the ficus became so lush that its leaves kept the shrine and devotees dry when it rained.
He said the original caretaker was a monk who brought the statue of Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin from China and had a habit of sleeping under the tree.
When the monk died of a heart attack in 1975, his son Chen Zhou Rong took over.
Now 53, Mr Chen remains the caretaker. He has stayed on-site come rain or shine - greeting visitors who arrived at all hours to seek solace from the tree and the gods lining the shrine's altar.
Now that the ficus has toppled, however, Mr Chen believes his promise to his father has been fulfilled and he will be returning to his hometown in Malaysia.
''I do feel an attachment to the place and the people in the neighbourhood, having lived here most of my life,'' he said. ''But it's time to go.''
Most residents were wistful rather than downcast at the tree's collapse.
''People grow old and die,'' said Mrs Nan Xiao Mei, 76. ''It was the same for this tree.''
As well as attracting devotees, the shrine also used to elicit ''oohs'' and ''ahhs'' from curious onlookers and tourists from afar.
''The tree was very, very beautiful and many would take photos of it,'' said retiree Lu Siew Bao, 60, who lives in the block next door.
''Before it collapsed, pink flowers in full bloom fanned out across its long, hanging branches.''
Heritage enthusiast Jerome Lim, who grew up in Toa Payoh, said the shrine was a significant part of the estate's heritage.
The 48-year-old told The Straits Times it served as ''a link to the past when much of the area was occupied by farms and Chinese kampungs''.
For many, it was a meeting point, and praying there had become very much a part of their everyday routine.
Ms Agnes Pek, a 40-year-old sales assistant who works at a beauty shop a stone's throw from the site, said she used to pray for safety and a good day before starting work every morning.
Others, such as 65-year-old Yang Mei Hong, who grew up in Toa Payoh, felt the tree could have been saved had the authorities recognised its heritage value and placed supports to buttress it.
''They should have paid closer attention and preserved it,'' she said.
''It's really unfortunate that it's gone.''
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 20, 2013
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