Today, the nation and the world continue to battle Covid-19. That being said, the Changi Airport spirit is resolute — and most evident in the people who work tirelessly in the frontline to ensure that our world-renowned aviation hub remains safe and strong.
As Changi Airport commemorates its 40th anniversary, we speak to Rose Chia, a professional horticulturist responsible for the blossoming floral and garden displays that surround the spaces of our iconic hub — as well as the challenges and joy derived from her 24 years of experience.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a local or a tourist, the majority know this to be true: lush greenery can be found in almost every corner of Changi Airport. Walking through Changi has always been an enthralling experience; one that offers — quite literally — a breath of fresh air.
A quick glimpse is enough to reveal a vibrant assortment of ferns, vines, shrubs and flowers; neatly lined and hard to miss. In fact, a whopping total of 600,000 plants can be found across the main terminals of Changi Airport today
But when was the last time you stepped into Changi, or drove down ECP and paid attention to the gorgeous sight of neatly-lined Bouganvilleas? With travel at a standstill, lovely horticulture continues to bloom in the tender care and hands of people behind Changi.
These are people who work passionately behind the scenes to ensure that our gardens flourish beautifully round the clock, even in the height of a pandemic.
For Rose Chia, a professional horticulturist at Changi Airport, crafting a picture-perfect garden display is exactly what she sets out to achieve. Quiet on first impression, it didn’t take long before she opened up about her love for nature. Beneath Rose’s reserved demeanor lies a passionate advocate for greenery; a believer of its healing effects on people.
An outpour of dedication, passion and love: Life as a horticulturist
No two days are the same for a horticulturist. This is especially so for Rose, who has 24 years of service under her belt.
On most mornings, Rose heads into the office to check in on emails. But a larger part of her day involves making site visits where she oversees the landscaping and maintenance of displays under her care, such as the Butterfly and Cactus gardens at Terminal 1.
While the terminals may be closed off to the public temporarily, daily maintenance still presumes away from the eyes of the public. On other days, she visits the plant nursery to view and select plants for special displays.
Often, a wider scope of her work goes unnoticed. According to Rose, her work extends beyond daily maintenance — it also includes indoor landscape strategy, planning and preparation for events.
Unbeknownst to some of us, Changi Airport preps about 8 major themed displays each year. These are meant to commemorate festive events such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas. Rose knows these projects at the palm of her hand, for she has worked on several across the years.
In a bid to bring celebratory spirits to the airport this National Day, her latest project is a display featuring iconic national symbols within a red-and-white garden setting. Aside from Singapore’s national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim (grown within their own nursery!), the display comprises other eye-catching symbols such as the Merlion and the 5 stars from our national flag.
Sprawled across the airport terminals — from the transit to public areas and even the vaccination centre, this display took 6 whole months of preparation before it even came into fruition. With a lack of manpower caused by the pandemic, the horticulture team learned to adapt to the circumstances. Additional efforts were pitched in — when setting up the display, for instance, and when repairs of damages were required.
Rose explains: “This is a way for us to honour our country, to inspire and keep the ‘can do’ spirit of our airport staff and frontliners working hard to keep Singapore safe and the airport operational amidst the pandemic.”
One might think that such ideas originate from an individual’s mind, but that is far from the truth. More often than not, the planning stage involves an advanced brainstorming session consisting of several team members.
I soon learn that each and every detail comes together with the passenger in mind. As Rose shared, the goal has always been to enhance the overall airport experience for every person who comes by.
Upon deciding on which flowers to showcase, the next step involves planting the specific species in the nursery ahead of time. There’s much to consider: Which colours go together? What would make a good backdrop for the gram’? How can the large installations be moved seamlessly? These are just some of the many questions that are tackled collaboratively as a team.
Some other memorable projects for Rose were displays crafted for Singapore’s Golden Jubilee (SG50), Singapore Airshow, as well as the Topiary Christmas in 2019. “That year, we created over 20 gardens using Christmas trees and flowers. They were decked in different colours and placed across all terminals,” she shared.
“For the first time, Changi Airport displayed Poinsettias in unique colour combinations — cream and orange, with traditional red and white. That made it fun and different for visitors.”
An affinity with plants, seeded from a young age
As though bound by fate, Rose’s name is coincidental. When this was brought up, she simply chuckled softly; equally amused at the situation.
“Ah, yes. Roses are beautiful, aren’t they? They come in so many colours too! But my favourite has got to be the Dendrobium Orchids. They are pretty, come in different sizes, and are relatively easy to care for.”
Watching her eyes light up at the mention of plants was certainly inspiring. The breathtaking gardens surrounding Changi Airport stand as testament to her hard work and passion.
Soft-spoken by nature, Rose emanates an air of calm. It makes perfect sense for a horticulturist. When asked about the essential qualities required in her line of work, she stressed two: Patience and attention to detail.
“An eye for details is important. For it to look pleasant and pristine, there must not be an exposed pot or untrimmed yellowing of leaves. That leaves people wanting more.”
People who are naturally good with plants are often told that they are blessed with green thumbs. But talent alone can only go so far. Truth is, their success lies in unconditional, dedicated care. If patience and mindfulness fall short along the process, it’s likely that plants won’t bloom beautifully.
“Plants do not cry or complain, but will start looking poorly with neglect. You need to care for them intimately every day.”
As a kid, Rose was fascinated by the blue pea plant (or Clitorea Ternatae) grown by the fences of her kampung. She was also part of the gardening club in secondary school, where her love for plants grew.
“For most horticulturists, work stems from genuine interest. It’s the same for me. Along the way, we get to know more plants ... their names and growing habits.”
She went on. “If you have that interest, it will be a breeze. And you will love your work.”
You reap what you sow: A therapeutic and soothing bundle of joy
Making plants thrive in an indoor environment can be challenging yet satisfying, and more so when executed in a destination like Changi Airport — a place with some of the most extensive indoor gardens in the world. Ultimately, the successful blossoming of a garden doesn’t occur overnight. It’s often a case of trial and error.
Even for an experienced horticulturist like Rose, obstacles come in all forms. In the initial stages, water lilies under her care only managed to bloom after rounds of failed attempts.
It took three months, to be exact. The pond’s ecosystem needed pH balance; the water had to be clear; the right fertilisers had to be used. Among a bevy of other elements to monitor.
These hurdles were considerable, but so were the rewards. The result — a serene garden now sits in the transit area of Terminal 1; featuring plants like the Water Lily, Sacred Lotus and Screw Pine which have all adapted to the freshwater environment.
Rose tells me that one of her biggest driving forces is getting to witness her plants sprout. Visiting her “babies,” as she often calls them; checking their roots in search of signs of life — this brings joy so strong that it’s almost indescribable.
“When there’s finally growth, it proves that I’m doing something right. I look forward to that. There is no feeling quite like it.”
Today, much of the operational processes are ingrained in her, and she takes massive pride in what she does.
“When people enjoy our displays or compliment them, that brings immense satisfaction. Our airport prides itself on having many firsts. I love it and feel at home here,” she enthuses.
“People have a longing for nature, that’s one of the many reasons why our airport is so well-loved.”
Grounds of the airport terminals may still be closed off to the public for now, but Rose believes in keeping the airport beautiful for a large number of frontliners who are still required to report regularly for work. In subtle but profound ways, these displays keep them motivated to return.
As for Rose — she looks forward to the day when the eyes of the world can be peeled on her creations again.
Until then, there is still more work to be done.
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