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.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Qing Ming

Qing Ming this year falls on 5 April. It is one of the important time when Chinese would take time off and make efforts to remember their departed loved ones and ancestors. In some traditional families, their family members would travel vast distance, from where they might be in, be it studies, work or even living in, to come back to join the family in going to the tombs of their ancestors to pay their respect. In some small towns, the local hotels could be fully booked.

In modern times, especially in crammed cities, many Chinese are opting for cremations and hence the ashes of the departed would be placed in niches. Some might be placed in temple halls of ancestors. Others in public columbariums.

In the Singapore tradition as I know (not too sure if this is the general Chinese tradition), the Chinese would observe Qing Ming ten days before and ten days after the Qing Ming date. Because of the high concentration of tombs in the cemetery vicinity and niches in the columbarium, there is expected traffic congestions. Some people would go as early as 5am to beat the crowd. There are also some who would go one week before the ten days limit. Pragmatism prevails.

Rituals and offerings evolved over time and place. Where the tradition is to put coloured papers on the tombs (hence the Hokkien term of De Mong Chuah, meaning putting the paper onto the tomb), when there are no more tombs (as in the niches), this practice becomes non-existent in the columbarium.

Other traditions of the family gathering together in the bigger space of the tomb to have an extended family picnic, eating traditional food (such as popiah, Hokkien spring roll which seems to be the Hokkien tradition) and the offerings - usually including the favourite food of the departed loved ones and traditional dialect food - becomes almost impossible. I remembered following the Zhong Shan Clan to Peck Shan Teng (Bishan) in the old days during Qing Ming, where the clan members would go to pay respect to their respective ancestors and came back together to have a picnic at the main clan tomb memorial. There would be more than half a dozen huge roast pigs in the offering to the collective ancestors of the Zhong Shan Clan. The butcher members would later chop up the roast pig for us to enjoy with the traditional Chinese in the picnic. I could not understand the Zhong Shan dialect, but I enjoyed the roast pork. :)  With the removal of the tombs in Peck Shan Teng, this annual tradition stopped.

Offerings to the departed and ancestors continued, food, tea and wine (for some, which could range from XO to beer), and of course, joss papers and other worldly goods to be transported across the realms. As in life, with evolution, so would be the offerings. The lookalikes of mobile phones, ipads and tablets could be found being sold in the joss shop. Dishes too. And if one needs some medication, they are available too.

In the Cantonese quarter of Chinatown (where most people would know as Chinatown), there are still two joss shops meeting the needs of the people in Chinatown and anyone coming into town. One is at Blk.5 off Banda St and the other at Smith St. If one wants to look for traditional Chinese joss papers, Chinatown shops are surely the best place. Over time, some of them are also getting rare. And many of the offering are becoming "mainstream" with all the dialect groups.

While the congestions might be as far as Choa Chu Kang/Lim Chu Kang area (where the cemetery is) or Mandai (where the huge government built columbarium complex is), a number of clan associations's ancestral halls in Chinatown are being visited by the descendants. Many of the older members have their tablets placed in the clan association ancestral halls.

As in the Chinese tradition, Spring and Autumn are two seasons when one remembers one's ancestors. And so, Qing Ming in Spring reminds us of our ancestors, for without them, we would not have been here. For many of us in Singapore, we could but marvel at the challenges our ancestors met and overcome over the ancient to not too recent years to bring us to where we are today. It is a time to be grateful.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Chinatown Retro

Well, not really. But it was interesting in the past week to see STB (Singapore Touristm Board) with CBA (Chinatown Business Association) coming together to sponsor another interesting event, the Chinatown coLAB (now I learnt about the use of hashtags #chinatowncolab ). Here, anyone interested in the heritage of Chinatown could participate in the weekend event to come up with ideas leveraging on digital technologies to create more access into the history and cultural heritage of Chinatown.

A workshop was held on Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at the Tooth Relic Temple auditorium where interested public turned up to understand more about this Hackathon. First timer like me was curious on what a Hackathon is all about. Ah nothing to do with hacking that layman like me thinks.  By the end of the two hour session, for those of us attending the first time, we were clearer now.

Momentum took up on Friday, 28 March 2014, when various speakers talked about Chinatown, from history to culture to technologies. I was fortunate to be invited to give a 15 minute blast on what Chinatown has. For a long winded person like me, bursting to share, from one end to the other end of the greater Chinatown, 15 minutes was impossible. Nevertheless, I tried and hopefully, it caught the attention of the audience, if not all, at least some, as they had fed back me. :)

To walk the talk, well, at least part of the talk, I led a group underground to look at the wet market of Chinatown. There were quite a number of walks so that participants could select the walks that they were interested in to come up with an application idea. My walk started with the Food Street Walk, led by Wallace and Mei Ping of Select. Alas, it was a little early at 9.15am and so the group could not experience the atmosphere and got to see the stalls preparing and serving their food. The names of the food stalls were impressive as they were specially invited to set up shop here.

At the Food Street

We went into the cool with a faint smell of what a wet market should be. For the wet market enthusiasts, and if you are a cook or chef, you must be enjoying the smell, wet floor (hence wet market) and the chattering of the customers. Nothing like chatting with the stall holders, exchanging notes about not only the things they are selling, be it vegetables, eggs, fish or poultry, but also the mutual friends who could be just customers. "Ah, here are the fresh vegetables just arrived," the stall holder would call out to his regular customer, in Cantonese. "How to cook it?" asked the customer.

A wide array of vegetables

I was challenging my group, consisting of members from ITE (with their lecturer who is an expert on Asian cooking!) to A*STAR researcher, if they could identify all the vegetables being sold. The friendly lady stall holder responded almost immediately, in English, that I would give a prize if they could! I replied suggesting getting some fresh chillies as prizes :)

The Chinatown wet market of today is certainly more friendly to tourists than in the early days, although in those days, there would be excitement of snake killing along Trengganu St, when the wet market was on the streets. I hope that if we do more wet market tours, especially, with locals, we could generate more business for them. I remember the last time when I brought two restaurant friends from Sydney who were keen to know the local wet market scene, one fishmonger actually took up a huge fish to show them! Pictures were taken and certainly one plus point for us Singaporeans! :) To add to that experience, I brought them to enjoy one of our signature dish, the Fish Head Curry, where they could see how the head of that huge fish could be cooked and served. Another Italian friend, a Scientist visiting Singapore to share his know-how was so impressed by the Fish Head Curry that when he went back home, to US, where he is living, he actually cooked a Fish Head Curry for his friends. Ah, Singapore is not made known to more people. And the wet market was his favourite haunt, given his love for cooking!

Dried ingredients in the wet market

We meandered from row to row, looking at the dried ingredients so important to Asian cooking, then the vegetables, the poultry (alas, no live chicken to see - I always love to ask anyone whom I bring to the wet market what is the colour of the feather of the black skinned chicken - meat too), fish - certainly the place with the most smells (could not see the killing of the Toman or Snakehead), eggs (how to identify the salted eggs and century eggs), pork, yong-tow-foo and fruits.

We were running late but the participants seemed more interested in staying longer in the market! I hope they get to visit it again, and again. And if someone could develop some interesting mobile apps, it might help them identify the many things sold there. Of course, there is nothing like shopping and chatting with the stall holders, which my wife did, shopping as we went along, and sharing her stories with the group as well. Many of the stall holders speak Mandarin and English. Of course, nothing like chatting in Cantonese and seeing the animated face as the stall holder shares with you all kinds of stories.

Back to the Chinatown coLAB venue which had been shifted from the Tooth Relic Temple on Friday evening, this former OCBC (Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation as it was once called) has a very interesting and nice atmosphere that I thought was conducive to creative ideas. After another round of presentations, the teams that were formed on Friday night (I was told it is like speed dating except that you are looking for someone to complement you in forming a team so that you have the content providers and the techies who will develop applications for the POC - proof of concept). Wow, first time I was watching strangers approaching each other to seek them out, after the initial 1 minute pitch of his or her ideas to the audience on Friday night, after my supposed-to-be-inspirational-talk. :)  Although I was not involved in the team, on hindsight, I should have joined. But maybe, it would be too stressful for me. :)

Nevertheless, it was a great time, meeting the young people and getting to know them. Some asked me for more input and also bounced their ideas off me. Someone fed back to me that my blog posts were too few and too far in between. Ah, I must work harder! :)

All gathered, excited to see the ideas

On Sunday (30 Mar 14) afternoon at 2.30pm, the teams were ready! 16 ideas were presented, some complete with demonstrations of their applications! 3 minutes to present and demonstrate their ideas was certainly very challenging but all managed to put their ideas across, with proof of concepts demonstrated too!

 She came, she saw, she joined in .. presenting her team's idea

The guys at Chinatown coLAB certainly did a great job, with the support of members from CBA and STB. And with the objective of making heritage of Chinatown more accessible to both the Singaporean and foreign visitors, it looks like we are certainly on the way, the right way. I look forward to the fruition of some of these great ideas. Of course, a living heritage needs more than technologies. We will get to see more developments coming up. I like the comments that if Singaporeans find interests in Chinatown and through their more often visit makes it vibrant, the foreign visitors will be sure to follow. They want to know why the Singaporeans (not just Chinese) visit Chinatown. There are many interesting nuggets waiting to be discovered, not to mention that many associations such as the clan associations and arts groups are waiting for new members - young and old. Want to know more about the Chinese heritage? Come to Chinatown. Many of these organisations are already open to any Singaporeans.