Monday, September 28, 2009

8th Moon: The Month of Weddings

After a ghostly month, the Chinese population prepares for the celebration of the moon. By co-incidence, it could well be said the month of honeymoons? Yes, to the Chinese traditionalists, 8th Lunar Month (or we call it 8th moon) is the month of weddings. Restaurants would have been booked months ahead, probably even a year if one wants a particular restaurant for a particular date.

Perhaps there was a shortage of restaurants? or was it the economic crunch? Regardless, Wedding lunches are becoming the trend these days.

In the old days, the bride could only wear the wedding gown once, and that is on her Wedding Day. But modernity has taken over, and it must have been since two decades ago when the couple would go for glamour photography. From a few places in Singapore, the photography sessions start to go overseas. Kind of pre-honeymoon trips. In our days, it was simple. We had two friends who became our official photographers taking pictures from the beginning of the day to the end of the wedding dinner. Photography sessions used to be a few popular garden spots. Mine was the Toa Payoh Garden.

But of course, some traditions will remain. Nothing is complete with the serving of tea to the elders. It was the moment of recognition of the marriage of the couple. Official civil marriages do not seem to count, except for the application for an HDB flat or for less than pleasant matters. Customary marriage was the event that most families must have. There are always somethings in the newlywed's bedroom that must have. There are still grannies and aunties to fuss over the hundred and one small things to look into. Customs vary from dialect group to dialect group, from village to village (in China). Red for most Chinese, and maybe pink for the Teochews? The Hokkien would have a complete bathroom set with spitoon as well.

And where would they look for the traditional things that are associated with weddings? Ah, hidden in one corner of Chinatown complex are a few shops, nestled together, selling all the traditional wedding paraphernalia.

For those who want to look for bridal gowns and glamour photography, just a couple of minutes' walk to Tanjong Pagar Road, there is a row of shops specialising in modern wedding gowns. The Cantonese "kua" seems to be hidden somewhere behind as the brides opt for plunging necklines for their wedding dinner's second dress.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节

If we were to list all the festivities of all different ethnic cultures in Singapore, we could be a festival city with practically something going on every day and night! Just imagine, in a short space of time, locals as well as foreign visitors are attracted and possibly distracted (^^) with so much excitement in the pre-Hari Raya Puasa (Ramadan) light-up in Geylang Serai, Deepavali in Little India and Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown. We could be breaking fast with friends in Little India or Kg. Glam, have a nice Masala Thosai in Little India and then have a nice bite of the moon-cake with some great Chinese tea in Chinatown!

Tonight, the cool weather added a touch to the light-up of Chinatown to start off the Mid-Autumn Festival. In a tropical city like ours in Singapore, we just have to add that extra imaginary effort to appreciate the cool crisp autumn air better. Unlike the old days when we had to imagine from our textbooks about autumn what it really is, these days, many kids are lucky enough to have gone outside Singapore to experience autumn.

Ask any older person about moon cakes, and chances are what came to mind could be Dai Zhong Kok 大中国 (Da Zhong Guo), Dai Tong  大同 (Da Tong), Nam Tong 南同 (Nan Tong) and more. Long queues could be seen outside Dai Zhong Kok as each patiently wait in the sweltering sun for their turn to buy the moon-cake, with single egg yolk or double egg-yolk. In the old days, one could even catch a glimpse of how the shop people prepare the ling-yong (lotus paste). For us kids the, it was the piggy in the traditional baskets that we looked forward to. For the eligible, it was time to impress on the potential in-laws with a box or two.

These days, moon cakes are big items as corporate gifts as vendors present to their clients. Big hotel names on glittering boxes contain moon cakes are making their round, from Shenton Way to Ayer Rajah. Ah, I miss the innovative canned moon cakes which I used to send to my friends in other other parts of the world, where moon cakes meant different things to them.

Talk about Zhong Qiu Jie 中秋节  (Mid-Autumn Festival), one will think of Chang Er and yes, the rabbit ... and history or legends come alive as grandpa tells a story. These days, well try the wikipedia or google. (^^) It was a time when something nice and delicious has to be had, moon cakes - the typical lotus paste in a soft crust. And there's the pomelo (In the old days, they seemed to only appear during this time. Of course these days, they are around almost all year round. Ipoh Lor-Yau was reputed to be the best), ling-kok (water-caltrop) and Chinese tea. To the southern Chinese, it would have been Ti Kuan Yim (Hokkien for Tie Guan Yin) or Luk Poh/Poh Li (Cantonese). These days, there are such a wide spread of different Chinese tea varieties.

And what happened to the lanterns that each kid would clamour for? Those tied together using bamboo chicks and covered by transparent coloured "glass" papers. In the centre was a small metal spring, into which one would put in a small candle. It was a challenge to keep the lanterns from catching fire. Then came the advent of battery operated lamps and plastic lanterns in the shape of Ultra-man. What would have been beautifully hung along the five-foot-ways outside the shops in Chinatown, they are conspiciously absent. The shops have changed. The children too.

This evening, the thousands who flocked from all over Singapore to Chinatown saw Mid Autumn Festival performance with a fusion between the traditional and the new. It was a performance of the young, who through performance will remember Mid Autumn Festival and their contributions towards keeping this tradition alive. Stories depicted in the modern form. Modern dances added to the gaiety of the event. Cameras of all shapes and sizes, professionals to the phone-cameras, they blocked the views, but many would be happy to bring back a piece of the action. Some would find their way to facebook and youtube. Others would have already been transmitted via MMS through the phones to their relatives and friends. I wonder if any did a 3G video-phone call to share the excitement with their grannies who could be at home. (^^) Next year, maybe, we could put it on or better still another site of our (Singapore) own with the next generation broadband network in place.

From now till the 15th of the 8th Moon, there will be many events in Chinatown.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Images of Bullockcartwater by Marcus Lim

Take any object, building or any place, over time, dirt covers over, someone decides to whitewash it, or even make changes. Often, it is to the delight of some when they discover the real beautiful stuff below a seemingly modern and beautiful outlook.

But often too, one might not be lucky enough to view as it was. Sometimes, one might not be able to see one from the other. Ah, but there might be help. Historian painter, Marcus Lim, decided on go on his prowl to catch what might be ordinary yet go unnoticed, often by the local residents or citizens. It is with delight that I discovered Marcus's seemingly few easy strokes that bring to live what Chinatown was and still is.

Chinatown means different things to different people. The residents of Chinatown will hate and love it, at different times of their lives. We often recall with nostalgia the old scenes, smell and rubbish all, yet we might not want to relive through that part. Yet, we are not willing to let go. To the people living outside Chinatown, it is a fun place to go, see, do one's things and go home. To the visitors, tourists, they go and capture what they see, often with cameras and perhaps with the contents of their wallets. Interestingly, most of the scenes of yesteryears could be somewhere in someone's home far far away.

Likewise, most of these beautiful paintings might be in someone's home somewhere far away. But of course, these days, many Singaporeans would also want a piece of the memory at home. Lest it is no longer there.

Marcus has painted many of these scenes of Chinatown and Little India, each unique from his inspiration. You could contact him at to know more about his paintings. Visit his website at

ack: pictures from Marcus Lim

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Zhong Yuan Jie - Ghost Festival - in Chinatown

This year, Chinatown's Hungry Ghost Festival (Zhong Yuan Jie) has taken on a bigger plane, by offering to show and explain more about it to the interested locals as well as tourists (including expatriates). Many have seen the Zhong Yuan Jie and could not understand the myriad of details in this festival that involves both residents and business people. It did not help when the festival could have a Hokkien/Teochew or Cantonese flavour which are now coming closer and blurred into one Chinese event. The rituals conducted by the Taoist priests are quite different, in some aspects, when performed by different dialect groups.

To the 140 participants of the Chinatown Hungry Ghost Festival walking tours (on 31Aug and 1 Sep) led by veteran heritage tour guides Diana and Charlotte, it was an eye-opener. There was quite a number of locals in these groups as well.

During this 7th Lunar Month festival, there are a number of important dates for the Taoists and Folk Religionists. The Hokkien and Teochew would "welcome" the wandering souls on the first day of the 7th lunar month and then send them off on the last day of the 7th month. The cantonese would pray to them on the 14th day of the month. On the 15th day, many would conduct prayers. The Taoists would pay respect to Ti Guan (of the trio of Tian Guan, Di Guan and Shui Guan).

Since long ago when Singapore Chinese lived in villages or in enclaves of Singapore such as the Chinatown (there was the Teochew, Hokkien, and Cantonese parts of the greater Chinatown, the Hainanese being further away), someone in each community (sometimes more than one) would take the leadership to organise a Zhong Yuan Jie. In those days when most could not afford it, the residents would contribute on a subscription basis, ending with an amount big enough to have quite a hamper of food to bring back after prayers. To us children then, this was one of the few festivals where we could enjoy duck, chicken, pork and fruits. Today, these are taken for granted. The organisers were and still are very innovative in how they could organise bigger and bigger events each year, based on the subscription as well as money collected through auctions during the dinner.
In the business district, Zhong Yuan Jie is deemed as very important because the business people wants to have a safe place (from accidents) and roaring business. And so, they would contribute actively towards the organisation of the festival. Auctions during the dinner would be more boisterous as each company (the bosses) would try to outbid the other for important items, which could be a red banner with two lanterns or black gold (big charcoal). A small business community's Zhong Yuan Jie celebrations could easily run into tens of thousands of dollars. Certainly a good boost to the local economy in the mid-year doldrum.
Zhong Yuan Jie is a time when it is believed that the souls would be released from "Hell" (better known as Hades to avoid misintepretation). These could be the ancestors and wandering souls. To the living, it is a time to remember our beloved departed and ancestors and so, we make offerings as a gesture of our remembrance of them. No ancestors, we will not be here, and there will be no descendants. What about those who have been neglected for some reasons, some could be just the end of a lineage? It is the collective community's responsibility to offer them something.
In a community - business or residential - it is a time of more interactions through joint prayers and dinners. In the past, a village or even a street would have Zhong Yuan Jie on one particular day. You could walk down the street and see almost every house putting up an impressive display of dishes, fruits, joss papers, flags and joss sticks stuck on to every food dishes on the five-food-way. In each of these houses, especially in Chinatown area, it could be a collective effort of the tenants (which could number up to ten!) and their landlord. I remember when I was young, in the house where we lived, we had a Bibik (Peranakan lady) who oversaw the organising of the prayers.
Apart from the offerings from each house, there would be the collective "street level" community prayers with even more impressive display of food, such as roast picks, big trayloads of roast ducks, roast chickens, deep fried fishes and other delicious food. The would often be pail loads of can food and the seven important ingredients - salt, sugar, rice, light soya sauce, dark soya sauce, vinegar, and cooking oil. At the end of the prayer, each participating household would collect their share home. Along with the prayers, there would be a street wayang (opera). It was a time when the hawkers would gather around the street wayang offering anything from fried oyster (barnacles) omelette to cheng-tng (sweet desserts - my favourite) to siput shellfish to hammered dried cuttlefish roasted on open fire with sweet sauce to tikam-tikam (kind of lucky deep except that for 5 cents you got to select a sealed slip of paper to see if you could win 20 cents or sweets to peep shows (movies on a tricycle).
In later years, getai (modern variety shows) with increasing (decreasingly in coverage?) daringly dressed girls - as we got more modern (^^) - took over the entertainment scene. The famous comedian duo - Wang Sa and Yeh Fong - probably started from this route.

Back to Chinatown where the Zhong Yuan Jie was held on 1 Sep (actual day), more traditional details were being worked on. There was the huge dias dedicated to San Qing from which the Taoist priests would conduct their rituals. The main altar would be dedicated to the wandering souls on one end, and to the Jade Emperor (Tian Gong) who is flanked by Nan Dou (Southern Stars) and Bei Dou (Norther Stars). To the left from the main altar was Da Shi Ye (the monster transformation of Guan Yin to ensure that the wandering souls are kept in their stride, especially when the loads of money and other goodies were burnt and being transported to them). There was also the boat as the mode of transport.
To the right from the main altar was the playground for the wandering souls - popular cards and even opium pipes - complete with toilets. These were the modern toilets! Some places use a mat placed on standing position making like a tent.

In this tentage, there is this unique "paper statue" of Da Bo Gong (known as Dai Pak Kong to the Cantonese), Cheng Huang (Seng Wong in Cantonese) and his assistant (as I was told). And there was also another Deity related to wealth (whom I was told to be San Ye Bo).
There was also a corner where paper tablets dedicated to the departed ones were placed by participating members. Two of the departed ones had their name written in English. One even has a photo pasted onto it.

As in any modern day Zhong Yuan Jie, it might be considered incomplete without getai. And so, here, there were two nights of getai that had overflowing crowds.

As part of the awareness and education, the Youth wing of the Taoist Federation of Singapore put up panels of posters (in English and Chinese) explaining about Taoism and Zhong Yuan Jie. Another eye-opener for the visitors. I could see many, young and old, studying closely the contents of the posters.

Another interesting innovation was the Sinema Mobile (reminds me of the old days of white cloth strung across two lamp posts with two noisy 16-mm film projectors - if we were lucky, more often than not, it would be a sole projector) showing the documentary-drama "Month of Hungry Ghosts" produced by Mythopolis which made its debut last year's Zhong Yuan Jie. For many of us, this documetary showed and explained much that most of us would not have seen nor known. This was an accidental project because the producer Genevieve Woo and director Tony Kern were looking for such information preparing for their drama movie, when they found out that they could not find any and so they set out to look for them. And so, we benefit a great work that will become of the archives of Singapore heritage.

The Chinatown Business Association and Singapore Tourism Board did a great job bringing an ancient tradition and folk culture to Singaporeans and visitors. This year could well be just a seedling of a bigger fest? (^^)
Special thanks to Chinatown Business Association for inviting me to witness this wonderful heritage event.