Monday, February 27, 2006

A Sunday Morning at the Chinatown Food Centre

This could well be a typical Sunday mid-morning at the Chinatown Food Centre (FC). Well, I was there on 19 Feb 06 to have my favourite Vegetarian BeeHoon by the escalator nearer to the main market entrance.

Imagine that I have been eating at this Vegetarian BeeHoon stall long before the arrival of our kids, ate with the kids and now the kids are 13 & 11. This stall still has a queue every morning and the queue is much longer on the first and fifteenth of the Lunar Month.

On a Sunday morning at 11.30am, almost all the tables were taken up. Most of the people were in their 50s to 70s, a gathering of the retired folks. An interesting item on the table seemed to be beer! One man was seen taking a mixture from a bottle of Carlsberg and a bottle of Guiness Stout. And he was drinking it and eating fruits!

Across to the other side of the FC was a dim-sum stall, which used to house the Chwee-Kuey (Teochew Rice Cake), and there was a long queue, as it was in the past. I wonder why the Chwee-Kuey stall gave up.

Here is probably one place where Cantonese is still the main language spoken, and one could say the same for many Chinatowns around the world. For many of the older people, who probably do not stay in Chinatown, Sundays are days of gatherings with old friends or old neighbours and chats could have a wide range, from politics to the mundane things.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Chap Go Meh

To the various dialect groups of Chinese, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year could mean different things. But of course, all knows that it marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebration.

The age-old Wak Hai Cheng Beo at Philip St, a Teochew Temple which had since a long time been popular to Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese, continues its traditional eve-of-chap-go-meh exchange of flags and lanterns. This goes on right through the 15th day. Gone are the days when one could see the devotees carrying flags and a bigger joss-stick sitting on the trishaws as they rode home. These days, they have even bigger joss-sticks to withstand the wind as they ride home in cars and maybe taxis.

To some Chinese families, it is a time for some tang-yuen, the familiar southern Chinese rice balls.

In Chinatown, it was the last bang for the Chinese New Year with another round of celebrations. Alas, I did not get to see it as I was somewhere else attending a temple dinner. But I managed to capture some scenes of the full moon (it is said that the moon is rounder on the 16th day of the lunar month) overlooking Chinatown.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Chinese New Year in Chinatown

Over the years, Chinese New Year in Chinatown means shopping before the big day and Yu-Shang (pronounced in Cantonese for Yu-Sheng) after the new year. The highlights of the goodies for the Chinese New Year were mainly for the traditional Chinese cooking, such as dried mushrooms, the famous Yunnan Ham, all kinds of Chinese sausages of various shapes, colours, size and lengths, dried oysters, fatt-Choy (in Cantonese for Fa Cai) and yes, tidbits such as boiled peanuts, cashew nuts, melon seeds, and sweets. The attraction for this year must be the Mua-chi (like the Japanese Daifuku) from Taiwan.

Said to be originated by three or four local Restauranteurs, the idea of Lo-Hei (again, in Cantonese for raising prosperity) was rooted and now it is an in-thing for all to go for Lo-Hei within the 15 days of the Chinese New Year. This year, I saw people going for Lo-Hei even before the CNY! Some would prefer to do it on the 7th day of CNY, as it is said to be everyone's birthday. And yes, from the traditional Cantonese raw fish, these days, one could do Lo-Hei with practically anything, from Salmon to Abalone.

One interesting landmark of the new entrance to Chinatown must be the decorations at the New Bridge Road/Eu Tong Sen St junction with Upper Cross St. This is one scene that goes 360 degree that you must see. (^^)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Pai Ti Kong 拜天公

Today is the 9th day of the Lunar New Year. It is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, more popularly known to the Hokkien (Fujian) people as Ti Kong (Tian Gong in Mandarin). It is probably the single most important day for the Hokkien Taoists. As in the Chinese way of counting time, the first hour of the new day starts on the night before (in modern clock time) from 11pm. And so, the Hokkien would start their prayers from last night at 11pm, and well, depending on the throwing of the pua-puay (sheng-bei - the kidney shape wooden blocks that the Chinese Taoists use to communicate with the Deities or even the ancestors), the prayer could well end as late at 2am.

In the old days when I was living in a Peranakan house (our family rented a room) in Chinatown, it was a grand communal affair where all the tenants joined the landlady in offering the prayers. The main hall on the ground floor was arranged beautifully with all the praying paraphernalia, which included big red candles that were pushed into the sharp pointed brass candle holders (all polished for the Chinese New Year and this night), big joss papers known as Ti-Kong-Kim, most of them being folded into elaborate shapes, including those that looked like the ancient gold and silver ingots, and sugar canes.

A pair of sugar canes was and is still a must. According to stories heard, it was said once the Hokkien were being attacked (not sure if they were the mongols or bandits) and they went to hide in the sugar cane field. The sugar cane saved their lived. And so, when they came out alive, in gratitude the prayed to Ti Kong with the sugar canes, probably reminding them of how their lives were saved.

It was a night of grand offerings from roast pig to roast chicken and ducks, all kinds of Chinese kueh - like Huat Kueh and Kue-Nern-Ko (Egg cake pretty close to Castania), and yes, the Ti-Kong Pia (Cookies that the poor Hokkien made as a varied offering), fruits of all sorts, dried vegetarian dishes, and whatever the kitchen could produce. In our Peranakan House, it was a night of gathering as well, when all the tenants sat together, folded the Joss Papers and chatted. It was a night when children were allowed (almost forced to) stay up late to pray to Ti Kong.

The excitement came when the leader, in this case, the landlady, would seek approval to burn the joss papers. When this was granted, in unison, the occupants of the house would carry the joss papers, including the big and well decorated boxes and the sugar cane leaves chopped from the sugar cane, to form a bonfire. In the 1950s, it was also a time for the biggest amount of fire-crackers. Most of these fire crackers would have strung up to the bamboo sticks hung from the highest floor. In our house, the highest was third storey. It was a night when neighbouring houses would try to outdo each other in the fire-crackers too.

The next morning, with beady eyes, we would have to wade through the ankle deep "what's-left-over-of the firecrackers" - red papers - to walk to school. But we were also reminded of good and hearty makan awaiting for us when we returned home. This was one of the moments, we poor kids were waiting for.

As I do not have a picture of what I had described, I have borrowed this picture from Ronni Pinsler who has taken this Pai Ti Kong scene in Penang last night. It is almost similar, including the house. (^^)

Update: Wah, I did not know that as I wrote, someone in the west was doing the same! Monkey's narrations give me hope that tradition lives, albeit in smaller numbers. (^^;