Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chinese New Year also means rest and relax

If you wander around, especially in Chinatown and in many shopping centres as well, you will find many closed, even on the third day of the Chinese New Year! Since the past decades, the number of days closed for the Chinese New Year (acronym CNY) for the shops has been reduced. In the old days, one could close the shop for as long as nine days. Especially for the Hokkien, they might open their shops after the prayer to the Jade Emperor (more popularly known to the local Hokkiens as Pai Ti Gong or Bai Tian Gong in Mandarin), which happens on the 8th night of the Chinese New Year. For many, they might open the shop on the second of the CNY or a suitable date (which could be advised from the Almanac) for a couple of hours to indicate that the shop has been opened, and then it was closed again.

For many of such family owned businesses, they hardly take any day off in the year and so, the long period off during CNY was the only time off for them.

I remember the days when my late Mother-in-Law used to run a shop at the "old" People's Park selling cloth. She worked every day, Saturday and Sunday included. So, the only days off was just before the Chinese New Year and a few days into the CNY. In the good old days, many people still bought cloth to sew their own clothes or send to the tailor to make. Ready made clothing was not so popular for the ladies. Many of the cloth available were for the making of samfoo (literally translated from Cantonese as blouse and pants). Of course, some of the materials could be made into "modern" and more westernised style blouses or dresses. I used to get some cloth to make shirts too.

There was also the black cloth, in various designs (black of course) and of different make. In the old days, when one reaches 50, it was time to wear black pants and probably blouse (of the samfoo cut) in shades of blue. My Mum was starting to wear less bright coloured clothes when she passed 30! And then, the world changed. Everyone began to wear brighter colours. That must have been an indication to the shops selling cloth, much of which were from Japan.

Some of you might have heard of Japanese cloth brand like Toray. But to the customers, they were not really interested in the brand as in the quality of the cloth, would it stick in the sweaty Singapore, was it reasonably priced. Buying cloth in the old People's Park could be both an adventure and a nightmare if you are not good at bargaining. And you could even risk being scolded if the shop was making its first sale for the day to you and despite giving you the best price, you walked away. Business people could be really superstitious and a first successful sale could mean more successful sales! (^^)

Ah, but I was no salesman and did not understand the intricacies of bargaining and why prices were always offered high. You see the wholesalers would only sell the cloth in sets, meaning if a pattern comes in five colours, the retailers have the buy all five. But one would be lucky if two of the five colours sell. So, the shops have to make up for the other three which could not be sold or sold below cost. Some people got good deals out of the bargain, others don't.

My task was to help to close the shop with the old planks, making sure they are fitted to one another vertically (they are numbered) before finally fitting the door post, and door. These days, one pull of the shutter is good enough.

Come towards the last week or two before the Chinese New Year, sales would have diminished and no one could be able to buy the cloth and got them made in time for the New Year. It was time to do the annual clean up. On a good morning (usually weekends so that we would be around) we would be carrying out the rolls and rolls (or bales) of cloth out of the tiny shop. I often marvel at how much could be put into the tiny shops. Then, it was time to clean the wall, the railings, the fans and yes, perhaps, add a new coat of paint.

Talking out the cloth and dismantling the setup, of which the rolls of cloth were placed such that there would be no cloth avalanche, was easy. Putting them back was a challenge. Ah, new the boss of the shops knew precisely how and where the cloth should be put. It had to be and was important to be able to know where to get specific cloth than a customer might ask for.

After a long day, the job was done and the shop closed, for the next week or two. It was the end of an ardous day and a cleaned shop with new Chinese characters indicating prosperity was ready to greet the new year when it was reopened again.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Temples in Chinatown Welcome the Year of the Tiger

As with each Chinese New Year eve, the Chinese temples in Singapore await to welcome the New Year. And so is this year. As the heart of Chinatown was filled with lights, music and fun, in the other parts of the greater Chinatown, temples were filled with devotees who went to offer their first joss sticks to the Deities.

Smokes of the joss sticks and the continuous calls of the temple assistants for the devotees to the Deities informing them of their wishes for good health, peace and prosperity brought back wonderful memories. The one memory that was permanently etched in my mind was arriving in Thian Hock Keng at the stroke of twelve midnight in a trishaw to offer our prayers to Ma Chor Po (Mazu - Goddess of the Sea). It was a teary night as the fumes hit the eyes. But that added to the memory too.

But last night at Thian Hock Keng, it was a different sight. There seemed to be a bigger mix of age group. Interestingly, there were less of the more senior citizens. There were more children. Led by three Buddhist monks, many of the devotees joined in the chanting of the sutras. A few were outside watching the Marionette Theatre. A caucasian family was also there to soak in the event. The prayers ended at midnight with the beating of the giant drum and bell.

The temple then exploded with the fire crackers, alas, the electronic version but the noises were getting more like the real thing. The Cai Sheng Ye (Deity of Wealth) came in with the dragons and the lions. The devotees went after them with their cameras or handphone cameras. Some went after the Cai Sheng Ye for his sweets. To the Chinese, sweet is important. Everyone looks towards a "sweet" life, compared the the "bitter" life experienced by many of their ancestors. And of course, the typical Hokkien phrase is "Jia Tee Tee, Si Hao Si" (literally meaning if you take something sweet, you will get a son!)

I did a lightning visits to the other temples in Chinatown, covering Wak Hai Cheng Beo (Yue Hai Qing Miao) which is a temple often frequented by the Cantonese and Teochews (Thian Hock Keng is frequented by the Hokkiens, but these days, the dialect lines are blurred) and Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple (the only Hakka Da Bo Gong Temple in Singapore, as I understand).

Tradition is alive! In greeting a new year, going to the temples as our ancestors had done over the millennium, we continue with the tradition. And the latest Hokkien exclaimation: HUAT AH! Prosperity to all!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Chinatown Secret

Being old but young at heart, I thought I could try out a little fun with barcodes.  I am still trying to explore ways to make this fun for anyone - residents, local & foreign tourists. Let our handphone (well, not all of them) do some work for us .. and tell us more about it. It could be a place, a thing or even a message!

So, anyone wants to share with me what's locked inside this? And better still, share with me (and us) your brainwave about how this box of black and white could make a tour of Chinatown more interesting. (^^)

Monday, February 08, 2010

It's the time for Chinese New Year goodies

As kids, the one thing that we looked for, other than new clothings and Ang-Pows (red packets stuffed with money), it was the drinks and cookies. In those days, it was not soft drinks at any time as we would these days. Main reason was probably that it was something we could not afford and could afford to do without.

It was and still is customary to have some kueh-kueh (cakes) and cookies during Chinese New Year time so that we could entertain visiting relatives and friends with them and soft drinks.My favourite drink then was F&N's Sarsaparilla, which has been shortened to Sarsi these days. Ah, somehow, the taste has changed too. Or was it just my tastebud?

And for prayers, Mum would also start preparing to steam the Chinese kueh-kueh. One was the Kueh-Nern-Koh (Kai Dang Kohl in Cantonese or literally read as Qi Dan Gao in Mandarin). We youngsters, full of energies would be the best candidate to help beat the eggs. Often, we would use a big glazed earthen pot, which looked more like a garden pot without the holes. With a beater (that looks like a spring with a handle), we would have to beat the number of eggs cracked into the pot - gosh how many were there - until it seemed to grow in volume. We could not stop until Mum said so.

The other was the Huat Kueh (Fa Gao) which most of the aunties and grannies would be very superstitious about. No unnecessary comments, lest the Huat Kueh (which has yeast included) does not "huat" - "grow" up evenly like a flower just bloomed. Ah, here, we were warned not to say anything, just beat! For this Huat Kueh, we had to have the yeast with the dough overnight.

When these were ready, the special baskets (weaved with bamboos?) with the "glass papers" laid in the baskets would be prepared for the beaten eggs or dough into, and then, placed into a huge kuali (wok) already steaming hot with boiling water and a bamboo tray sitting on the wok. The baskets were placed onto the bamboo tray that was way above the reach of the boiling water. And a huge cyclindrical cover was placed over these dough on the wok. Wet towels (like those used as face towels) were place around the cover to prevent excessive escape of the steam.

Home-steamed kueh kueh are probably the best, with the best ingredients and no preservatives and well, there could be secret methods of preparing them. Alas, I think much of the arts could have been lost. Grandma's legacy.

In making the other cookies, there seemed to be a mix of Chinese and Malay (or was it Peranakan) cookies. I only had the experience of making "love-letters". Well, that was no fun when you have to roll the flat pancake into a roll, like a cigar. In our days, we used to love to emulate our grandpa by "smoking" these love letters. Imagine in those days, they even has candies made to look like cigarettes!

These days, one could almost get most of the common kueh-kueh in the shops. Ah, but, it will never be the same as those made by Mum, Grandma or Auntie.