Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fung Bo Bo returns to Ngau Che Shui (Chinatown) 冯宝宝回到牛车水

If there is one little girl who captured the hearts of the residents of Ngau Che Shui (Chinatown), it must be Fung Bo Bo. And we are talking about some 50+ years ago, when Fung Bo Bo, at the age of 3 made her appearance in Singapore with her movies. It is said that between the age of 6 and 9, she starred in some 120 movies!

On the 20 Jun 15 night, when I attended the last day of the the 2-day musical featuring Fung Bo Bo - Memories and Chinatown (probably sounds better in Cantonese, Fung Bo Bo Hui Da Niu Che Shui 冯宝宝回到牛车水) - I could see the sparkles in the eyes of the old folks as they queued to get into the theatre. Thanks to this Fei Zhai (肥仔) who initiated a "Join Fung Bo Bo Fansi Club" with a poster outside the theatre, many stopped by to take photos with the young pictures of Fung Bo Bo as well as writing down their names and email address or handphone number to join the club. The Chinatown Fung Bo Bo Fans Club seems ready to take off.

Many were trying to find someone to talk about their admiration for Fung Bo Bo. What better way than sharing with the lady (my wife) who manned the Fan Club stall on this evening. There was this lady who said that when she was young at 6, her picture looked like that of young Fung Bo Bo. And now, probably some 50+ years later, she stood by Fung Bo Bo's picture to take a photo.

Many brought along their ageing mothers to attend. One was seen on wheelchair (going to this rather ageing Kreta Ayer Theatre was a feat) and a few bent ladies being guided by their daughters. A few old couples came on their own, one holding the other, each actually requiring support. A few asked to sit down on the spare chair, panting from the walk up the slope.

A number were heard chatting in Hokkien or Teochew, but that did not prevent them from being fans of Fung Bo Bo. It was a time when Singaporean Chinese (and even non Chinese included) were multilingual, and appreciated the arts of the different groups. Cantonese movies, perhaps, thanks to Fung Bo Bo, were in abundance, compared to Hokkien and Teochew movies.

While Fung Bo Bo sang in English (she spent 6 years in school in UK), Mandarin and Cantonese, her conversation with the audience was in Cantonese. From the warm response, all must have understood Cantonese. In typical Chinese theatre scenes where the audience talked as much as the movie, this one was a silent audience, drinking in every word of Fung Bo Bo. She brought them through her almost 60 years of journey of her life, leading them through her highs and lows, and indeed, she must have gotten the audience reflecting on their times as they followed her along. There weas deep silence as Fung Bo Bo sounded teary and laughters with applause when she brightened up on great memories.

In between, Bo Bo shared her outlook in life and urged her audience to think likewise. "Talk and share your thoughts with your loved ones before they are gone," she urged. She was talking about her godmother, the late Lin Dai, probably better known to the older folks, with whom she lost the opportunity to express her love. Lin Dai had influenced and guided Bo Bo very much.

The return of Fung Bo Bo in this musical show as well as her just released movie on the Wonder Mama (Ma Mi Hak 妈咪侠) has brought back warm memories to the residents of Chinatown, and indeed, the diaspora of Ngau Che Shui. To the many in their autumn years, this must have been something that they did not expect, to see Bo Bo in person again. Some waited to meet her in person and to get her autograph. One man who missed the chance the night before was waiting patiently since before the show to try to meet her. I hope he made it on this evening.

For many of the senior citizens living in Chinatown, and elsewhere, thanks to Fei Zhai with the support of the Singapore Film Society, got to watch Wonder Mama at a special showing in Cantonese at FilmGarde at Bugis+. Thanks to the many friends who paid for the tickets for these senior citizens and their transport to the show.

For these people this must have been, in a way, a very memorable SG50 year for them! Thanks Fei Zhai and his kakis, who also included members of the Cantonese Clan Associations in Chinatown.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Goat has arrived, ahead of schedule

Or so one could say. Many believe that the Chinese zodiac starts on the first day of the Chinese New Year. But it is said that the change of the zodiac starts with Li Chun, the arrival of Spring, which is based on the solar calendar. This year, it is on 4 February 2015. Ah, for the many mothers to be, which animal were they betting for? Horse or Goat?

With the arrival of a new year with a new animal, it keeps the local Chinese economy humming and running. Go to People's Park Complex, and you will see a constant crowd, peering over the shoulders to look at what brings to them in this new year. These days, one does not have to remember. Up came the handphone and each took a picture of the animal that he or she belongs too. And then, it would be the family members as well. Temples are also having such posters for their devotees.

If there is anything that links Singapore Chinatown of today to the past, it must be the street bazaars, offering all kinds of goodies. Gone are the stalls that used to sell the Chinese New Year cards. Most clothing stalls were also gone, not to mention the shoes. I remember when I was young, we hardly buy new clothings or shoes. But for the Chinese New Year, it was a must and hence we kids looked forward to the shopping trip to Chinatown. Even it meant suffocating in the crowd.

What could well be the continuing products could be the melon seeds, groundnuts, Chinese sausages, waxed duck, Yunnan ham. Yes, the Bak Kwa (sweet meat) is like a must and there would be queues for the favourite old signature stalls. Today, you can still see queues. Some things are a must for they are symbolic of one's hopes. Ground Nuts known as Hua Sheng (which could sound like flower growing) could well be one of these.

In the past few years, even wedding glamour photo and dress companies began to appear in the street bazaars. Certainly a great way to catch some out of the crowd.

Dui Lian (Couplets) is not like what it used to be, where the folks would wait patiently to ask the Letter Writer to write some nice phrases for them. There are many ready printed ones available but nothing beats the original writings. This year, I spotted one calligrapher, supposedly from China doing a roaring business. His calligraphy is indeed very nice. With our HDB flats, there's hardly space on the doorway to paste the couplets. Interestingly, I spied and saw our new mainland Chinese neighbour pasting them inside the hall. Putting up the red banner (Ang Chai in Hokkien) over the doorway is also fast diminishing because of the small doorway into the HDB flat. But there are still some who faithfully put them up, very much what they used to do in the old pre-war houses or even attap houses of the old.

Apart from the din and roaring business to encourage folks to buy new things for the home and family members, from curtains to tidbits for the New Year Day guests, each family would also go about preparing for the new year in a quiet way. One of them must be in the wet market where Mum and Grandma would be busy with, stocking up fresh food to cook for Reunion Dinner. But of course, these days, many families opt for Reunion Dinner in the Restaurants. Where once the restaurants would be closed for the Chinese New Year, these days great business opportunities await from CNY eve to the days that follow. Loh Hei (Chinese Raw Fish with a selections of ingredients, each symbolising one great wish and hope) is certainly one of the great attractions. From within the family, it has become a big corporate event where vendors would treat their customers to such a Loh Hei gathering. Within the company, the boss might buy his staff lunch or dinner with Loh Hei. All for a better business!

Ah, but the traditional Grandma prefers to cook at home, cooking the traditional and delicious dishes that Grandpa loves and certainly the grandchildren. More work yes, but the efforts and love put into each dish certainly brings out the glee and smiles of the extended family. What better satisfaction can Grandma get.

In the old days, most families would have the tablets of their departed loved ones and the ancestors at home. On CNY eve, it is one of the moments when the family also remember their departed loved ones.They would cook all the favourite dishes of their departed loved ones and offer to them the way Chinese had done for millennium. In a way, it was good because after the offering, the living ones got to eat the food. These days, many tablets have been placed in temples. While many families still make it a point to go to the temple together to offer their respects to their departed loved ones, it would require immense efforts to cook and to bring the food there. Many still do, carrying the food in tingkat (multi-layer containers).

In many old Chinese clan associations, there is always a small space where members could put the tablets of their departed loved ones. In the days when clan associations were active and supporting many members who came to Singapore alone, this was a favourite space for one to reserve a tablet for the time to come. A number of the tablets are still found to be covered, as is a practice when one is still alive, with now already faded red paper. Probably when the person passed away, no one knew that he or she has already reserved such a tablet in the clan association. Until someone peek into the covered tablet, the story remains untold.

With each new year, the elders in the family would try to keep on to the traditions, dismayed at times with the changing world. A constant struggle as they win some and lose some. While the Chinese New Year might mean more in the old days when the ancestors were living in the country with four seasons and were likely to be farmers, it is still an important tradition that binds the extended families together. And it will repeat itself as each generation begets yet another generation.

To the ageing folks, each new year brings forth memories of the old. Many look back at the difficult times and smile at their more fortunate descendants, quietly noting the outcome of their hard work. Some would subtly remind their descendants to remember the source of the water when they drink. If it makes sense to them.

To borrow the coined wish, Goat Xi Fa Cai. Or my own one, Have a Huat New Year!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut Association 广惠肇李氏书室 celebrates 140th Anniversary

Kwong Wai Siew Li Si She Shut 广惠肇李氏书室 (Guang Hui Zhao Shi Shu Shi) is 140 years old this year. On 19 Oct 14, the Association celebrates its 140th anniversary at the Red Star Restaurant.

Started in 1874, at a time when China was under the Qing Dynasty, the association helped many of its clansmen from Kwong, Wai and Siew districts of Guangdong, China, as they came to Singapore to seek new opportunities and to seek a new life.

Through the support of its clansmen, it started off in a rented place at 26 Tao Fu Kai (Cantonese name for Tofu St, which was Upper Chin Chew Street, which is no longer there after the urban renewal of this area surrounded by South Bridge Road and Upper Cross St). It then moved to Neil Road and then Hospital Road.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, when Singapore came under the Japanese, the association ceased all activities for some 3 years and 8 months.  After the war, the association re-opened and ran its activities out of 21 Ang Siang Road. It later moved to a more permanent place at 2 Ang Siang Road, thanks to the generosity of its members.

With membership reaching more than a thousand in the early years, the Association has been active in organising activities for its members, from social to cultural, welfare and charity, provided music and Cantonese opera performances for the community, scholarship awards to students and subsidizing its elderly members in their return home to China.

And there were also the Chinese events that have always been part of the Chinese community and family activities, that the Association organised for its members. These included Lunar New Year celebration, Mid-Autumn festival, ancestor veneration in Spring and Autumn (including tomb sweeping). Other activities such as forums, overseas visits and exchanges, and lessons such as Calligraphy, were also organised.

The Association has also been active in participating in heritage events in Chinatown to create more awareness to the young Singaporeans. Many Singaporeans, especially the older ones would know Lee Dai Soh of the Cantonese Story-telling fame from Rediffusion, but many did not know that he is a member of this Association. Many gathered to listen to a "re-play" of his stories at the Association.

Moving into yet another milestone, the Association looks into the new challenges, needs of its members and passing the torch to the new generation of members. In looking forward to yet another hundred years, the President and his 50th Executive Committee hope that the flame would continue to burn perpetually for the love of the Clan.

Some 400 members and friends attended the 140th Anniversary Dinner at Red Star Restaurant.

A souvenir magazine to commemorate its 140th Anniversary was published.

(acknowledgment: information from Kwong Wai Siew Li Si Shut Association 140th Anniversary Magazine)

Friday, September 05, 2014

Evolution of the makan (eating) place

A few days ago, as I queued for my favourite food, I could not help reminiscing the old times. These days, there are queues all over the place in any food centre (formerly better known as hawker centres, because the hawkers moved from the streets indoor) or food court (which gives the impression that is in a shopping mall and has higher class look.

In the old days, one could go to the stall and place an order. The main stall holder and his or her assistant would track us (using eye sight technology) to where we would be sitting. It was amazing how many orders the stall holder could remember. Of course, if you are fickle minded and change your orders, chances are you will get scolding from him or her. The queue system in the brain just go haywire!

Of course, in those days, the stalls have their own tables and chairs and hence it was territorial. You have to order from that stall to be able to sit by their tables. Sometimes, they allow you to order other dishes that were deemed to be not competitive to them. And it was easy to track your whereabout. Even then, for some, it could quite a distance away.

Cleaning of the tables were swift because the stallholders want their new customers to come and eat.

When commonly run food centres were set up, there were problems. Maybe the allocation of the stalls were not considered properly. Two coffee stalls placed side by side was bound to create territorial war. There was free seating, which was good for the customers. Some more aggressive coffee stall holders would rush to grab the customers. And hence "no touting" signs came up.

Today, the customers have to go and queue up to buy their food. In many cases, one might not be able to find a space to sit when one has purchased the food. And hence, the saga of placing tissues on the table or chairs. All kinds of gadgets started appearing, from umbrellas to company ID cards and even handphones! Marketing companies took the opportunity to sell or give away tissue packs with the word "Chope" printed on them.

So, each day, over lunch and dinner, as well as over breakfast, it is a nightmare in the food centres. Piles of meal leftovers with their plates, bowls, folks, spoons and chopsticks were stacked up on the tables. The cleaners could not clear fast enough. Another idea of getting the customers to return the used plates or bowls to the tray met with varying success. There were not enough trays and the tray racks were placed out of the way. And so, many quietly slip away after eating, leaving the mess on the tables.

Many things will have to be considered to improve on the situation. In the meantime, the Singaporeans just endure and enjoy the food, especially if it is delicious.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

People's Park Complex

On 12 July 2014, I followed Tony Tan's (of Betelbox Hostel fame) walk in Chinatown. He gave us a good narration on the People's Park Complex. This brought back many memories.

I remember the days when I would save money on the bus by taking the No.9 (Tay Koh Yat?) bus from school via River Valley Road that terminated by the side of Majestic Theatre. With 5 cents saved, I would take a bowl of "Wan-Tao-Long", a kind of banana jelly (I was told) from one of the two stalls just outside the gated old people's park opposite to where the Majestic is. Around the corner was also the pickup point of the "pa-ong-chia", the pirate taxis(?).

Once school was over by 1968, things just went by in a flash, busy with work and earning a living. What happened to the old people's park (where I probably had one proper meal inside, after going to a "holiday-on-ice" show in the then Happy World I think, thanks to my school-car driver who paid for everything) was vague in my memory.

Until when the People's Park complex was built in 1970. I remembered going to the complex to check out this probably the first big shopping centre in Singapore. Even before the shops open, many were checking out floor by floor. Ah, the escalators were also somewhat new to us.

Many shops have probably opened and closed in the span of the last 40 years or so. I am curious to find out if there is any shop that lasted all these while. (^^) I remember the inexpensive Chinese emporium (Overseas Chinese Emporium?) where I could go in an check out all the items. There were also numerous books, with some in English but mainly translations of Russian (?) books on subjects like Marxism. Too difficult to read.

There was also a coffee house, the new in-thing of that time. I remember bringing a visiting German couple there for breakfast one day. We had an interesting time trying to understand the different taste with regard to soft-boiled eggs. They preferred 3-minute eggs. In Singapore then, and probably now, it is aga-aga (estimation based on the experience of the coffee uncle). Coffee was expected to come without sugar, but in Singapore, the default is with sugar. Talk about cross-cultural understanding or misunderstanding. (^^)

Fast forward to present day, the shopping scenes inside the Complex have changed, rather drastically. The Chinese emporium probably still hold court, but the rest have come and gone. On the outside of the Complex, new northern Chinese food started appearing. On the inside remitting office fronts for money to be sent back to China sprung up. There was also a tattoo shop that seems to be doing a roaring business.

On the ground floor, another change of scene. Small shops selling smart phones and pads grew from no where. Some customer complaints started to appear from the notices posted on the doors to the Complex. Another set of shops started with offering of trimming of facial hair using threads. This reminded me of the old practice when Grandma used to engaged someone to do it. Apparently it was not a painless process. Over the months, another transformation. Less of the facial skin trimming but more of the eye brow tatoo-ing and other facial applications, both for men and women, and of all ages.

Somewhere upstairs are the foot reflexology parlours. And there are still the traditional luggage and shoe shop. There is also the ubiquitous smell of the Chinese medicinal oil for muscle relief that permeates one section of the shops.

If there is anything that lasts, tradition and custom must be the ones. This is one that is observed every year. Paying respects to the "Good Brothers" (the wandering souls believed to visit the realm each 7th Moon of the Chinese Lunar Year).

All in all, a colourful and ageing complex that sees changing lives, leaving behind memories of yesteryears. If you were there, that is.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin is now probably the only rustic place left in Singapore. Even then, in terms of what I have seen and experienced walking in Ubin, the present state is a far cry from then. The romantic in me loves the old times, but then, for many, it might not be an ideal place in terms of comfort.

Why Ubin is mentioned here? In my last trip to Ubin for the Tua Pek Kong temple celebration on Vesak Day this year, I had a memory jot. Oh, when was the first time I have been to this island? I have been to Ubin rambling around trying to explore different areas at the perils of dogs. I have been there bird watching with the Bird Group of Nature Society of Singapore. And later, on butterfly watching trips too. And yes, then, came the Civil Service chalets by the jetty, where I could stay over a few nights with my family and friends, experiencing the island atmosphere.

Between my first visit and my next visit, there must have been a gap of some 2 decades. I still have some hazy memories of my first trip. Like a faded video in play, I could not remember the details.

I guess I must have been about 5 or 6 years old or so when my old neighbour, whom we called Ah Po (meaning Grand-Auntie in Hokkien), offered to bring me on a trip to sua-teng (up the hill) and in particular to a sio-toh (small island). In those days, we were all tenants in this pre-war houses at Craig Road "ruled" by a very strict bibik (Peranakan lady. Lights would go off at 11pm sharp and so will the main door be shut. I could remember two huge portraits of her ancestors, dressed in what I now know as Qing robes, looking equally strictly on us kids.

And so, off I went with her, first to her friend's place somewhere in Changi Road. I could only remember as another pre-war house, dark and smelly and we went upstairs. From there, we took a bus again to Changi Point. And then with a boat to Ubin.

I could only recall going into this village house that seemed to be vast. Walking in from the jetty, I remembered seeing the entire place by the sea that seemed to have bunds making them into prawn/crab ponds. And yes, there were ducks and chickens and many fruit trees. Being a kid, I was oblivious to the old friends catching up, but looking around me in awe.

What must have been the highlight of the visit must have been the bee hoon soup with freshly slaughtered chicken. I was told later that this was sua-teng hospitality. When a guest arrives, they would \catch a chicken, slaughter it, and have them cooked to serve the guest. That must have been the best meal of my life until then. Remember, in those days, we were poor (and so were many). Chicken was only bought for occasions such as Chinese New Year, 7th Month prayer and maybe prayers to the ancestors - especially to the parents and grandparents who have passed away not too long ago, on their death date (the Hokkien calls it "cho-kee").

I must have been one of the few kids in Tua Po (greater Chinatown) who have been so far as Pulau Ubin.

Interestingly, I learnt from my Mum that this Ah Po is from the Kee clan which has quite a number of Kee families at Craig Rd and there was also a Kee Clan Association. Years later, I was once helping a university student who was doing research into temple events who said that his family was from Craig Rd. I was not too interested in heritage then. Now I am wondering how I could reach out to them to record the history of Craig Rd, aka Turn-Tiam-Hung (the Pawnshop Alley). While Ah Po's children live in the same house as us (29 Craig Rd), she actually lived in a small hut in the premise of Botan House (now the Chinatown Plaza) at the corner of Neil Rd and Craig Rd.

For those interested in Pulau Ubin, there is a group dedicated to sharing about Pulau Ubin:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A bowl of Lor Mee set me thinking of the past ...

It's been decades since when I had Lor Mee 卤面 (the traditional Hokkien noodles in thick gravy with lots of garlic and vinegar) at Boon Tat St. Those were the days when there was a row of roadside stalls there and Lor Mee was one of the favourite ones of many. For us working in the vicinity, we would brave the heat and even rain to get to our bowl of Lor Mee.

Decades passed and the Boon Tat Street became very clean. First there was no more stalls. And then, the residents were no longer there. And now, there are shops and restaurants.

The good news is that Lor Mee is still around. In fact there are many in the hawker centres (now known as food centres) of Singapore. There is one in Amoy St Food Centre, which could well be from Boon Tat Street. It is here where with my family we could come for our Sunday breakfast. The kids learnt to like Lor Mee. And these days, they, already grown up, would suggest Lor Mee on occasional Sundays when we still have time for a family breakfast together.

And on this day while having Lor Mee, my thoughts led from the delicious noodles to Boon Tat Street to the tomb of Ong Boon Tat at Bukit Brown. Many would have read about the biggest known grave at Bukit Brown as that of Ong Sam Leong. Many might not know of his sons, one of whom is Ong Boon Tat.

Here is one post on Ong Boon Tat by the Rojak Librarian. Read about it to find out more about this man. Would you know that the New World (at Jalan Besar) was founded by him with Ong Peng Hock?

You can find out more about some of our pioneers who have been buried in Bukit Brown at All Things Bukit Brown and Bukit Brown: Living Museum of History and Heritage.

Thanks to KhooEH, one of the Brownies (the group of dedicated and passionate people who were "digging" and discovering more about our pioneers through the tombs in Bukit Brown) here is a picture of Ong Boon Tat's tomb at Bukit Brown.

While Lor Mee and Ong Boon Tat are not related in any sense, indeed, history brought them together. For people like me, food through taste invokes linkages in history. Perhaps, the next time when you eat a bowl of Lor Mee, it might remind you of Ong Boon Tat and through him, New World and history of Singapore in those days. Maybe, it might be a fun way to teach history? :)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Nostalgia through food

Last night with wife, we strolled through the old Chinatown (maybe a better name for the Cantonese part of Chinatown?) looking for food, dinner to be precise. There were many stalls but somehow they did not appeal at this time. As we meandered around the "lorongs" (alleys) in the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, we saw that there was still a queue for this Chicken Rice. I was not expecting it (Heng Ji 亨记) to be still open.

So, wife volunteered to queue and I chope (get) a place. There were nine persons ahead of her and soon, another ten behind her. Most conversations, especially with the regulars, were in Cantonese. Wife and I were trying to look for a trace of a familiar face in the people manning the stall. A man and a woman were taking turns to chop the chicken.

Ah, we were thinking if this was the Chicken Rice stall that used to operate on the roadside at the corner of Trengganu St and Smith Street, on the side facing the Art Deco block of flats (now gone). Wife (girlfriend then) and I used to get out in the evening to look for this Chicken Rice ("running" away from her mum's shop selling cloth in the old People's Park). At that time, I could remember that sometimes they would not give us our request for the Chicken Wings alone, probably a favourite then. Still a favourite of wife till today.

I still remember the unique flavour of the chilli sauce, which is different from those of the Hainanese Chicken Rice.

Alas, it would have almost been the same if the chopsticks and the plate had been what they were in the past, bamboo chopsticks and porcelain plates. Eating them (of course, we have had these for a couple of times, when we were in the FC for dinner and if we are lucky) was a like walk back in time, some 40 years ago.

Around the corner was another long queue. This time for various kinds of dessert. Wife spotted the Mun-Tao-Long, as written in the Chinese characters (but all the time I remembered it as Wang-Tao-Long). I am not sure if these are the jellies made from Bananas. I was told so long long ago.

Which brought me back to the late 1960s, when I was still in Kim Seng Technical School. Should I take the Hock Lee No.14 bus from Kim Seng Rd home at 15 cents or should I take the No.9 Bus (I cannot remember which bus company was this) and save 5 cents to eat the Wan-Tao-Long? Most of the time, I opted for this, with friends. We would alight from the bus at the side of the Majestic Theatre, ran across the road. Outside the open-air People's Park were two stalls selling Wan-Tao-Long. For 5 cents we could have a very small bowl of the Wan-Tao-Long. There was the metal spoon that came with in. On top of the shaved ice and the jelly was a cut lime to give a zing taste. And then, happy with the cool dessert, I would straggled home with my heavy school load along the old New Bridge Road to Cantonment Road where my home was. Wow, that must be 50 years ago!

Glad that these foods are still around to remind us of our old or rather younger days.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Lee Pan Hon from Sago Lane

Thanks to James Seah who unearthed a gem from our archives and put the stories together, I thought I should share with you, just in case you did not see it at his blog. :)

Thought I steal a little of James' blog by linking the youtube video here, but you must read the collection of stories that James has put together. Ah, the stories of old Chinatown.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mazu Festival

Each year on the 23rd day of the 3rd Moon (Chinese Lunar Calendar), two old temples in greater Chinatown would be crowded with devotees in celebrations of Mazu's birthday. This year, it falls on 22 April.

Thian Hock Keng (Tian Fu Gong) at Telok Ayer St had come up with a bigger programme kicking off the festival with a performance by popular Taiwanese folk singer, Deng Zhi Hao on 19 Apr 2014. He last performed in this temple in 1996 and 2010. Both Buddhist and Taoist rituals were conducted during this celebrations. There was also a Hokkien Marionette on the 22 April morning followed by a Getai (variety show) in the evening.

For Wak Hai Cheng Beo (Yue Hai Qing Miao, also known as Yueh Hai Ching Temple), this year is special because the temple has just completed its restoration and the temple was in full splendour with the celebration that included a two day performance of the Teochew iron-stick puppet, a puppetry unique to the Teochews.

Away from Chinatown, there are many more Mazu temples and shrines celebrating. Across the Singapore River is the Hainanese Tian Hou Gong at Beach Rd (you have to enter the Hainan Association building to see the temple). Further inland are the Cantonese Mazu temples in Sin Ming Industrial Estate and Ang Mo Kio St 44 Avenue 10. In Geylang is the HengHwa (Putian) Mazu Temple.

Mazu temples can be considered as closely linked to the early Chinese arriving in Singapore. Mazu, known as Goddess of the Sea, with many titles bestowed by different Chinese Emperors, amongst them the most commonly known is Tian Hou (Heavenly Empress), was the Goddess whom the Chinese would pray to thank upon coming ashore. It is said that when Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) came to Nanyang and the oceans as far as off the African coast, his big ships would have the statues of Mazu to guide and protect the ships, and to whom they could seek for help when encountering stormy seas.

Thian Hock Keng and Wak Hai Cheng Beo are possibly the oldest Mazu temples in Singapore. In the old days, as is now, these temples were built for their own communities, usually dialect or associated vicinities in China. Thian Hock Keng would be mainly for Hokkiens from Hokkien (Fujian), China. Wak Hai Cheng Beo would be for the Teochews, and for Cantonese too as one could see Cantonese Taoist Priests performing rituals in this temple (since they all come from GuangDong).

While the deity, Mazu, is one and the same, the Taoist rituals, the tradition and customs of offerings and even entertainment such as puppet show or opera are uniquely different. During the Mazu festival, if you are keen to observe the traditions of different dialect groups in their celebrations, visit all the different temples. The Hainanese temple would have their Hainanese rod puppet. The Cantonese would usually have Cantonese Opera.

I remember when I was very young, during Chinese New Year eve, my grandma and mum would bring me to Thian Hock Keng on a trishaw late into the night to offer our first joss sticks to Mazu, whom we affectionally called Ma Chor Po (literally translated as Grandma Mazu). And on Ma Cho See (Mazu Birthday) too. As kids we were not too keen to go because of the smoke from the burning joss sticks and joss papers. Today, there is almost an absence of it as the burning joss sticks were efficiently taken off from the joss urns after a couple of minutes, in some cases, seconds. While the form might change, the sense of belief remains as I observe the devotees prayed fervently, communicating with Mazu, privately one-to-one. During lunch time, smartly dressed office workers would come to the temple to pay their respects and seek blessings. Only Mazu knows the many requests made of her, be it blessing, solving of a problem, or to lend a listening ear.

These two temples, built in 1800s (Thian Hock Keng in 1842 and Wak Hai Cheng Beo in 1855), with a couple of restorations, are amongst the oldest in Singapore. Only they alone witnessed the changing tides of Singapore. The sea is no longer visible, surrounded by towering concrete blocks. But when you enter the temple courtyard you enter into another world, easily one that could be 150 years ago.