Tuesday, September 03, 2019

7th Month events in Chinatown

In local Chinese tradition in Singapore, the Chinese Lunar 7th Month is also known as the Ghost Month. The Chinese believe that during this month, the ghosts, usually known locally as the "Good Brothers", would come to our world. We would make offerings to these Good Brothers.

7th Month Event at the Chinatown Wet Market

It is also the time when we remember our Ancestors, and so, many families would also make offerings to them, either at home or in the temples where these days many ancestral tablets are placed.

Residential, Factories, offices and businesses would gather to make offerings to the Good Brothers. While it is the belief that we hope that the Good Brothers would help in our work and business, it is also a time when members of the residential, business and even office communities join together for a common event. In the small business communities, it is also a time when they put their business rivalry aside for the common good of the community.

7th Month event at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre

In the Cantonese part of the Singapore Chinatown, it has always been a tradition of the 7th Month event with rituals being conducted by the Cantonese Taoist Priests. With changes in the business community in Chinatown, businesses form into a few groups for their annual 7th Month prayers. Three notable events with Cantonese Taoist Priests are held by the Chinatown Complex Wet Market, the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and the Chinatown Business Association.

7th Month Event at Chinatown Food Street

Following the ritual and prayers, there are usually dinners where participating shops and stalls came together. In such dinners, there are also auctions where participants bid for various items. While these items are of auspicious nature that is deemed to help the bidder with his/her business, the auction also helps to raise funds for the organising of such events.

This year, the Chinatown Business Association (CBA) came up with a short video clip to share more about the 7th Month beliefs and practices in Chinatown.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Remembering Seven Sisters Festival 七姐会

In early days of Singapore, in the Singapore's Chinatown, along the streets of Neil Rd, Kreta Ayer Rd and Keong Saik Rd, from the eve of the 7th Day of the 7th Lunar Month, these few streets would be bustling with activities as various 7 Sisters Festival groups would be preparing their altars and displays. I understand that there were also similar activities as far as Keppel Rd and Sembawang, hearing from people with whom I chatted with.

Today, apart from some in the privacy of their homes, there was no sign of such an event in Singapore. In the 60s right to 80s (I think), they were still visible, albeit, diminishing.

We were all too busy making a living that we did not notice the demise of this once upon a time an important event. With rapid developments, movement of households out of Chinatown, and less workers like the Majie and Samsui Women who probably formed a fairly big group, the festival just disappeared.

While there are still enough people who remember how the festival was held in Singapore, perhaps, it is timely to gather information from them. While documentation of our heritage is important, it would be great if the respective groups like clan associations could revive the festival.

Over time, beliefs and practices will evolve. The 7 Sisters Festival has been observed in Korea and Japan. In Japan it is known as the Tanabata Festival. As it follows the Gregorian Calendar, Tanabata is celebrated on 7th of July each year. For the Chinese, we still stick to the Chinese Lunar Calendar.  How would the 7 Sisters Festival be celebrated, only in the near future will we know.

On 3 Aug 19, a few days before 7-7 (7th Day of the 7th Lunar Month), Singapore Heritage Society, with a few stakeholders will organise a Panel Discussion of "Remembering the 7 Sisters Festival" at the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Registered participants will get to have a taste of what is known as the 7 Sisters Cookie (七姐饼). It would be like old times for the older folks or a new experience for those who have never tried it.

Thanks to Stephanie Ng for allowing me to use her sketch of the 7 Sisters Cookies

Monday, November 12, 2018

Our people, our heritage

Thought it is interesting to share here as we begin to become more aware of our tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Creating awareness is indeed a challenge, and requires much efforts by anyone and everyone interested in preserving/conserving our heritage.

It is indeed heartening that our TV stations are also broadcasting more of our heritage. And not just the buildings or the rituals/ceremonies but the people who are actually documenting them. Documentation can in any form, creative and otherwise. In this first episode by Channel 8's Tuesdays Special (in Chinese), there is this interesting group, the Urban Sketchers, who took to the streets (literally) to immortalise many of our buildings and things like food!

Check it out with the first episode starting tomorrow night at 8pm.

(Click here to watch the trailer)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Move House

For some reasons, I was given a new blogspot and I am still figuring how to put them together.

Until then, for new posts, please go to this site.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chinese New Year & food

One of the family memories of past Chinese New Years must be the Reunion Dinners. For many of us, greeting the Chinese New Year (CNY) is incomplete without enjoying the delicious traditional family dishes with all in the extended family. There must be many 3G or 4G (4th generation) in each extended family. With the world getting smaller, sometimes, it is tough to get all together. Some members of the family must be somewhere in the other parts of the world.

For many, especially the mothers, working towards the CNY could have started from Winter Solstice. Although one is based on the solar calendar and the other, the lunar calendar, the difference of the number of days between the two events are in matter of days.

Spring cleaning is a ritual in the old days, especially in the old pre-war houses, when the entire community (tenants and landlord) within the house would clean. The date could be set by the landlord, as in our case (and in our case, it was the landlady). Then, mothers started worrying on the thousands of things to do, from ingredients for the grand CNY Eve Reunion to the new clothings for the kids, and yes, new bedding, window and door curtains. And yes, an appropriate to clean the altar for the family Gods. For some tradition, the small shrines for Tian Guan - Heaven Official in the Taoism (most people think as Tian Gong - Jade Emperor) would be changed.

Each family has its own favourite traditional dishes. I was lucky to enjoy the Hokkien dishes from Mum and Cantonese dishes from my (late) mother-in-law. There are possibly some dishes that are common to most families and definitely some unique to each family.

For my Hokkien tradition, our favourites (and these days, the grandchildren would hint and ask Grandma to prepare them) are Kiam Chye Ark (Duck with Pickled Mustard Green Soup), Peppery Pig Stomach with Gingko soup, Deep fried prawns in batter (akin to Tempura), Trotters with Sea Cucumber and a curry dish! There is the ubiquitous Hokkien Noodles (using flat noodles). And yes, there could be steam boat where more ingredients need to be bought before hand, especially the dried ones. Ah, once a year (then and maybe now too), there should be the "Chia Loon" (as the folks would describe it) Abalone from Mexico.

In the old days, it would mean waking up early to slaughter the duck and chicken in preparing for the dishes. These days, one buy freshly slaughtered ducks and chickens from the wet market. In the early days, it also meant going to the wet market to buy chicken and ducks live to bring home and fattened up before the big day. This could be a week or two before. I remember everyone was feeling up the chicken (wondering if they were trying to find how fat or think it is) before buying. I remember that in those days, we have to negotiate with the ducks (which were more noisy) and chicken when going to the toilet, as it was the most convenient place to put them. For little boys, they were always warned to be careful of the ducks (probably worst if it is the goose). How to fatten up the chickens, we kids then believed cockroaches were great meals for them and so we went catching them.

From one, I have to help in the slaughtering of the chicken and duck. It mean either Mum or I will hold the chicken by the head and body, leaving the exposed neck for the kill. Nothing is to be wasted, and so the blood was drained to a bowl to be part of another dish. Alas, these days, we have to travel aboard to enjoy the chicken or duck blood. Defeathering the chicken, and especially the duck, is a tedious process. Hot water was used to enable easier defeathering and as kids, we were tasked to pluck all the fine feathers.

Duck is often for the sea cumber dish but because we were to make offerings to the Gods and Ancestors, like the chicken, it is boiled or steamed. With other dishes, all these have to be completed by late morning so that offering could start, before noon. It is believed that offerings must be made before noon.

In almost every major event, the ancestors are always part of the celebration or commemoration. In this way, we also expressed our thanks to our departed loved ones and ancestors, for without them, we won't be here. In current times, many of the ancestral tablets have been moved to temples and so, there would be the additional time to bring the food to the temple.

Lunch would be simple and most work remained to be done, and in Grandma's home, she will wait for all her children, grand-children, and in many cases, great-grand-children to come for dinner. Dinner becomes a noisy affair as family members catch up with updates. For some, it could be "introduction" or re-introductions of the newly added family members. It is always a challenge for the newly weds to see how they could now join two Reunion Dinners. By tradition and custom, the daughter-in-law is expected to be at the reunion dinner on CNY eve. And so some compromises have to be in place, early dinner in one? These days, one can hear one having reunion dinners as early as one week before CNY! Some families opt for reunion dinners in the restaurants, especially those who are working. Save one from the tedious task of preparing and, worst, cleaning up.

In the old days, Grandma not only think about the reunion dinner dishes. She probably tried to make some traditional cakes as well. And yes, the tidbits for the New Year Day for the visitors. For the Hokkiens, the traditional cakes, made by steaming after much hard beating of the dough, are the Kuey Nern Ko (Egg cakes), Huat Kueh (cake with yeast) and Ti Kueh (sweet cake, more commonly known these days as Nian Gao). In preparing the Huat Kueh, grandma was very pantang (in Malay meaning superstitious in the most liberal translation but not actually so) that no one make remarks such as whether the cakes would form properly. Kids love to ask all kinds of questions, especially challenging ones such as "what if .. "

Come New Year day, usually, there is almost no cooking. For most, the food left over would be eaten, and to many, they taste even better. I love my overnight Kiam Chye Ark. It has become a tradition in our extended family to have Mee-Sua with chicken.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Cloth or clothes

In the old days, months before the Chinese New Year, the then Chin Choo Pa Sat (the original People's Park before the current People's Park Complex) would be abuzz with the ladies going to pick up their favourite cloth to make clothes for the new year. After the fire, the stalls selling the cloth shifted to the new Chin Choo Pa Sat (as it is still known today). It is now known in English as People's Park.

I was only introduced to this trade when I met my wife, then, my girl friend. By that time, my mother-in-law to be was having her shop at the new HDB built Chin Choo Pat Sat (People's Park, which I call the Old People's Park to differentiate from the People's Park Complete and the People's Park Centre. How confusing can it be. On the second storey, it was literally rows of shops selling cloth. Must have been a delight to the ladies. In those days, the customers as well as the stallholders would have to sharpen their skills to get into battle of bargaining.

The medium of communication must have been mainly Cantonese as I remember, although I have met Teochews who could literally switch from one language to the other, adding in the flowery words in between without any pause. And indeed, one has to be careful when shopping. Don't get into serious bargain when you don't have the intention to buy, especially when the shop is just open. The first sale must be successful or the whole day would be ruined. Superstition? Perhaps. But certainly it would drain the mood away. For the skilful customers, it would be the best time to extract the best deal as the shopowner would want to succeed in that deal, even if it mean less profit.

The opening price and the agreed price can be at big extremes as the veteran shoppers will tell you. It is still happening in Nanyang! And if you were to reduce the asking price by 50%, and after a few lukewarm attempt, the shopowner agreed to sell you, you could have come away feeling that you have had it! :)

Looking from behind the front of the shop, I could understand why the asking price would be high. When these retailer bought the cloth from the wholesaler, they usually come in 5 colours of the same pattern. Out of these 5 colours, they would be lucky if two colours could sell, and not the other three. So, the shopowner had to balance to see how to recover costs, not to talk about profit.

In the much earlier days, there would be the black cloth (satin? silk? or what one in Hokkien called Kong Tuan) which would be favourite of the ladies to make pants. We were talking about ladies reaching 40 considering such less than colourful wear. In a way, maybe, when one moved towards being a granny, that's the shade of colours one would start trending towards. And there were the Majie who would be wearing such colours too.

For the younger ones, there would be the bright and colourful ones. More popular cloth would probably have come from Japan, mainly the synthetic ones.

Those were also the days when guys would buy cloth to make shirts. I was lucky to get cloth at no cost to make shirts. No thoughts of advertisements in those days.

Dating days also meant helping to man the shop. I was no good in doing sales. First, it is mainly in Cantonese. I am not good enough to chat, not to mention doing the to-ing and fro-ing in a match of patience and art of war. One has to convince the other, giving some technical knowledge on why this particular cloth was more costly, the made, and latest technologies. And so, I offered to do more of the closing of the shop at the end of the day. This is a man's shop, putting plank and plank that together covered up the shop front, leaving one space for the door. But hey, my mother-in-law did it on her own too, when we were not around, most of the time. Young people could be held down sitting in front of the shop and "king-gai" (chit chat).

The more tedious part must be the annual cleaning. This would happen like one or two weeks before the Chinese New Year. By then, no one would be buying any cloth as it would be too late to have it made in time for the new year. This would be the time when all the shops started closing down, cleaning the place and throwing away many things, most of the which could be the empty cloth paper roll. Cobwebs, dust and soot .. it would take a whole day to clean. And then, it would be closed for a good week or two, waiting for the auspicious day to start the new year's business.

My adventure with the cloth business ended when my Mother-in-Law passed on.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reminisce: Growing up in Chinatown

To be exact, growing up in Tng Tiam Hung, the Hokkien name for Craig Road. And for us youngters, so long we could "pa pa chao" - running around in Hokkien, we were gone, only to be back during meal times. And so, our playground grew bigger and wider as we grew older, and bolder. Oblivious to the dangers of traffic and gangsters (read also as secret society members), we went everywhere, well, almost. Certain streets are not meant to be entered and so, we didn't.

Now, as memories grew dimmer in the mind, I thought I should enlist former residents (and even current residents) of greater Chinatown, known as Tua Po, to share more of your experiences. Each of us has our own and we treasure them. I guess some would be private and others public.

Like, when we were young, sitting on the steps from the main doorway of where we lived, we would tease the girls as they passed by, on the way to school. One day, many years later, I was to be introduced to one girl in a colleague's house! Aha, so that was you?? Well, vaguely, as we have grown out of our cocoons, and could not really recognise each other.

Come 29Apr16 at 7pm, I hope to share more, and well, gather more from anyone keen to come along to Grassroots Book Room to talk about the old times (our young times). A number of the old places are gone and so, we will need other triggers to get that segment of our memory back.

Check out more about the Heritagefest. There are also many interesting tales of the old.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Farewell to yet another kopi tiam ...

It takes us a while to discover a place where we would feel comfortable enough to decide that that would be our "watering hole". A place to sit, have a cuppa, and watch the world goes by. And yes, the occasional (or even often) chance meeting of friends, neighbours or "comrades in crime", people of all kinds whom we would meet.

Identifying such a place takes take, adopting it takes even a longer time. More often than not, it is always an introduction and recommendation. A little far away from the maddening crowd would be ideal. And then, how about the boss and his/her staff. Would they be flexible enough to accept the idiosyncrasies of people like us? 

If we were to take time to find, adapt and adopt, imagine the challenges of anyone who wants to start a small kopi tiam from scratch. A franchise only helps that much to kick start. The rest is up to the owner. And so, it took Good Morning Nanyang Cafe at Pagoda St some 4 years to build up the business, where other than tourists or the occasional visitor from out of town, every face was a familiar face. The boss becomes the conduit to share messages and telling friends of friends if they had been to the cafe lately or only minutes ago. The traditional and certainly better way than the facebook alerting you of a friend nearby.

We thought we have found our ideal place where we could go and have a cuppa kopi (great kopi he makes), relax and enjoy the crowd. Observing how the tourists looked at the pictures hung from the project "Picturing Chinatown" which became a topic of discussion. Locals too. I loved to share with the out of state friends about project Chinatown. Here was a good start. 

That 4 years quickly came to an end on 26 Feb 2016. Regulars who knew came to have their last cuppa and wished the boss the best of luck in his search for the next space. A space that would be challenging to find where a watering hole could be established. A place where relationships are built and grown, a common sharing of the bigger space around it. No, the money spinners are going to make more money, oblivious to the more lofty hopes and ambitions. A sad moment as a staff bade the boss farewell, thanking him for taking care of her in the past 4 hours. How many grateful and loyal staff can you find? How many great bosses can you find. Working in a kopi tiam needs long hours and the ability to interact with different customers, old and new, flexible and demanding, and in this case, from different cultures which need gentle introduction and education. To enjoy the wonderful Nanyang kopi, uniquely in Nanyang, and yes, the half boiled eggs that you thought the Chinese would know? Nanyang ones again? :)

Come Monday, many more regulars might came in for a shock if they have had not heard about it. Many young and old Thai tourists would be disappointed as this seemingly hard to find kopi tiam was featured in their guide books.

Accepting the rush of the tides, rising or ebbing, we could only sat there till the official closing time, and still reluctant to leave. But the time had come, and with heavy hearts and great memories of the past, we bade the good folks of Good Morning Nanyang Cafe at Pagoda St goodbye and hoping to see them again. Would there be a re-incarnation? Only time will tell.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Monkey has arrived on 4 Feb 2016 at 1756H

And so it is said. When it comes to the Chinese New Year, there is always the confusion when the new Chinese zodiac takes over. Mostly, the old folks will take the first day of the Chinese New Year as the beginning of the new Chinese zodiac.

An interesting situation appears when one declares that he or she, his or her child is born in the year of a particular zodiac. In some years, the Chinese Lunar New Year comes ahead of Li Chun 立春, one of the 24 solar terms (following the solar calendar, akin to the Gregorian calendar, plus or minus one day I was told), it could be a Lunar New Year of the same old zodiac, until 4 (or 5) February. Imagine if one wants to avoid a Tiger baby :). On other years, Li Chun could be ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, as it is like this year. And so, what if a baby is born today? Goat or Monkey? But does it matter? :) These days, there are many baby born through caesarian.

And so, as we learn more about our Chinese culture and heritage, we get more confused. There will be confusion before clarify.

Anyway, the Monkey has arrived. Other than the pig, probably the Monkey stands tall (don't talk about the Dragon) in the Chinese story based on the Journey to the West. What better way to welcome the new year than revisiting the Journey to the West. And so, the Chinatown Chinese New Year lightup came with the theme of Journey to the West. A story that probably almost every Chinese would know, in one way of the other. In the old days, it was the Chinese comics. And there was the classic, not to mention the countless movies on different parts of the Journey to the West. And there are animations, which have lasting memories on the kids. Leave to the adults to debate on the stories behind the story.

And with the traditional local Chinese folk belief, they will celebrate the birthday of the Monkey God, respectfully known as the Great Sage or Da Sheng 大圣, on the 15th or 16th day of the First Lunar Month. From big temples dedicated to the Great Sage to small shrines, there will be celebrations. One of the oldest, if not the oldest Monkey God temple, must be the Qi Tian Gong 齐天宮 in Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru. It has an interesting history with delightful stories shared by the son of the first spirit medium of this temple, See Qi Tian Gong story.

The other old temple dedicated to the Great Sage must be the Bao An Gong 保安宮 (Poh Ann Keng), originally from a shophouse along Peck Seah Street. It was one of the few important temples in that there was also a spirit medium, and the temple serves as a one-stop place of consultation for the folks who lived in and around Tanjong Pagar as well as anywhere else in Singapore. The early devotees of the Great Sage consisted of a big population of Peranakans. You can see house altars dedicated to the Monkey God with a unique inverted bulb-shape tube. I am wondering if this tube was specially built for the Monkey God.

For the traditional businesses, what better ways to generate new products come each Chinese New Year. These days, when toys are at affordable prices, or most people can afford them, stuff toys of monkeys of various shapes and sizes appear. Some of them defy identification of any living species. Probably like the Monkey God, would anyone know of his association with any species? Maybe. :)

Each year, we welcome a new year with hope and enthusiasm. The new grandparents hope to see grandchildren. Their children might not be enthusiastic but might be changing their minds. But for sure, they might not hit the replacement rate. Where there's hopes, there's possibilities.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What is a bowl of Yong Tow Foo?

Indeed, what is a bowl of Yong Tow Foo? One might like it, others might not. So what is it that one so likes it whereas the other might not?

I was in this long queue for this, what I call the 1pm Yong Tow Foo as they only open for business at 1pm or thereafter, sometimes, 5 to 10 minutes late, when an lady rushed up to queue behind me. More out of curiosity as this was her first time! She said that her hairdresser told her about it. Being curious, she decided to see it is was really that good. Being something like 60 people behind (and chances are each person is not going to order just one bowl), there must be something to it. She asked how was it. I said, "very good", almost in unison with another lady who was sitting by the table near by who said, "not so good." She quickly added, to each his/her taste, in Mandarin.

I asked the lady some 60 people later how was it. She said, "OK lah, the soup is less oily,"probably indicating the positive part. :)

A couple of weeks ago, a friend called to say that she was in Chinatown and if I would like to go for lunch. She mentioned one Yong Tow Foo stall that she has been trying to eat from, but each time she was too late. "OK, I queue first," I volunteered while she went to do her errand. Being away from Singapore for the past 30 years, she has become a stranger in Singapore, or Singapore has become a strange place to her. She couldn't find me! Ah, there's the handphone to guide her.

And why this Yong Tow Foo? Well, when she was 9 years old, her late mother brought her here to have the Yong Tow Foo. Since then, it has remained in her mind, and each time when she came back, she would try to come to eat again. But she was not to be until this day. The queue was long, but it was good for us because we could chat about old times. That was how I learnt why she wanted to have this Yong Tow Foo. It brought back many memories of the times when she was with her Mum. Ah, the taste, the smell and even the chilli made a difference. Does it taste as good? It depends on your first time, I suppose. And subsequent times.

This stall would start early in the morning to prepare the pieces of Yong Tow Foo, putting the minced fish meat as fillings into the respective items such as tofu or the beancurd skins. It is laborious work. And then, there was the soup to be prepared. So, unless, all the various aspects of this somewhat simple looking dish are in place, they will not start selling. Queues would form before 1pm. By the time they open for business, there would be a swell of easily 50-60 people. Some passer-bys would look in disbelief, probably wondering if it was worth the queue in this humid and warm place. Ah, there are probably two areas where Singaporeans would queue patiently - FOOD and 4D. :)

Once the operation starts, it is very efficient. There are like 4-5 persons taking orders and serving them. If you are going to tabao (take away), the person serving you will ask you to stand in another queue for takeaway. But if you want to eat and tabao, well, they will take your orders and serve you first. In some cases, like you are going to tabao for 2, they have it pre-packed! If you are going to eat, they will ask you to give your table number, pay them, and they will serve you. If you are alone, you will have to try to find a spot nearby. Unless, you have a tissue pack or umbrella to "chope" (reserve) a place. Usually, there is always a place for singles. At S$4 per bowl (standard for 10 pieces), it is just nice for afternoon meal.

My friend who has missed this so many times became kiasu. She ordered 3 bowls to be shared by us, meaning each of us would have something like 15 pieces, and tabao another 2 bowls to bring back! I am certainly, it was a fulfilling meal. I must ask her what memories came flooding back.

For those who came to tabao, some not within Chinatown (I found an ex-colleague who came all the way her to buy), they would also bring their pots (the typical enamel pots) for the soup. This Yong Tow Foo must be eaten with the super hot soup! :)

So, a bowl of Yong Tow Foo, or for that matter, any simple dish or bowl of food, is more than what it looks or tastes. It contains a reflection of one's past - especially the spider-web of experiences of joy and pain. Ah well, it could be just a bowl of wonderful food to fill the tummy. :)