In Light of Mother’s Day

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A group photo of my mother’s side of the family taken in the early 90s.

My apologies for my impromptu absence from blogging; I’d let myself become too carried away with work and other commitments until I recently received some messages from readers, urging me to continue for the interest they found in my writing. As such I’m hoping to post at least once every week from now on. Without further ado:

Last Sunday, my mother made an Instagram post of three things. The first was a box of twelve assorted Laduree macarons from my sister, who knew her sweet tooth. The second was a polka dot ring-bound notebook from my brother, who knew she needed something to copy her new recipes into. And the last was my drawing of an owl, because I knew they were her favourite animals.

She saved most of the macarons for her children – I exhorted her to finish them, but she insisted on eating four and saving eight for the three of us. She has yet to begin using the notebook, because she persists in writing them down on A4 sheets of paper, glasses perched on the tip of her nose as she pens down directions for berry tortes and gula melaka cakes in her neat, sharp handwriting. As for my drawing, she has tucked it away, to join the ranks of owl-shaped paper-cuts and pottery and plushies she has stashed in her room

In these three items, we had tried to capture and appeal to what we knew of our mother – the feisty little woman who loved colour and sweet treats and cute things. But there are sides to her that no material gifts would be able to capture, and which I have only begun to understand even now.

My mother was born the youngest of five children almost six decades ago, into a middle-class family living in a bungalow in Geylang. Her father – my grandfather – passed on when she was just thirteen, leaving my grandmother, who worked as a clerk in a hospital, to run the family. She rarely spoke about her father, and I never learnt what he did, or knew what he looked like. Perhaps it was the waves of time smoothing out the scars his absence must have left in the family, but it had never seemed to cast a shadow over her recollection of her childhood. She told me of days spent playing masak-masak (play-cooking) by boiling small green berries from under the tree at her neighbour’s in a tin can with water, childhood teasing for her oddly-shaped front teeth (her second brother called her ‘Fei Nga’, which literally means ‘flying teeth’), writing letters to a British pen pal, and of Chinese New Years spent setting off firecrackers with her siblings and darting out of reach of the tiny explosions.

Around the time she was growing up, she said, Geylang was just starting to gain the seedy reputation it has today. In one particularly notable incident, a drunk tourist staggered into a residence thinking it was a brothel, leading all the residents in the area to tape signs in big bold letters to the fronts of their bamboo screens that read, ‘THIS IS A RESIDENCE.’ Even if my mother had never grown up in exactly the same kind of risque setting one now associates with Geylang, I can’t help but feel that some of her girlish sauciness and quirkiness must have rubbed off on her from her childhood surrounds.

Or perhaps it could have come from a simple disregard for conventional forms of ambition. She never really took to school, especially when it involved squeezing into a tightly-packed public bus with a set square larger than a schoolbag tucked under one arm. She stopped school in her first year of junior college (“I found their Maths very confusing”), and gained a job as a secretary in an airline meals processing centre with a secondary school certificate. While negotiating idiosyncratic bosses (one of whom used to order in whole cartons of raw oysters at a time and pop them into his mouth one after the other with lemon juice and mustard), she was courted and began courting. After meeting my father as a tennis doubles partner, they would sneak out after dark, and she would come home to the glowering figure of my grandmother outlined in the doorway.

He was in his final year of business studies at the National University of Singapore; a slender, quiet man with a small face framed with large round glasses that gave him a slightly mousy demeanour. When I look at their old pictures today, I found it remarkable how they were together – she in her tight pencil dresses and elegantly bobbed curls, he with his nondescript dark jackets and wispy moustache. Their marriage occurred just around the same time they got tickets for a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda. They would spend the next half-decade jet-setting: Paris, Rome, London, New York, Hawaii. The rest, as they say, is history.

This was not the woman I knew in my childhood.

When I was younger, I saw my mother more as a histrionic, dominating matriarch than the free spirit she had been in her youth. When I showed an early interest in books, she would tell me not to read too many of them or my eyes would fall out of their sockets. I’d brace herself for her high-pitched admonitions whenever I didn’t put on my clothes properly, refused to go for tuition, or didn’t want to see any of the relatives during our own Chinese New Year visitations. Whenever I cried, she’d threaten to hit me to get me to stop, and scold me for being ‘weak’. In secondary school, she didn’t support my decision to join the debate team. Her responses to my winning entries to poetry and creative writing competitions seemed muted. I couldn’t help but feel upset, even betrayed, at times.

Unlike my mother, I had high hopes academically. Not going to college was out of the question for me. Her religiosity and superstitious tendencies would irk me, as would her nagging at me to adopt more feminine pursuits and mannerisms. She would frown on my desires to travel to less-developed countries and to befriend, even date, individuals from vastly different backgrounds. Many a time I had wondered if I was so different from her that she couldn’t really love me.

It was easy, back then, to look at her actions and think she was being unfair by not allowing me to have my way. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself appreciating her more even if I may still not understand all her opinions. My interests were – and still are – vastly different from hers, but I’ve found it’s the simpler things that can make someone easier to love. The mouth-watering dishes she whips up on a daily basis, the head and back massages after a hard day at work or school, and the long nights she spends silhouetted in our doorway waiting for us to come home to make sure we’re safe.

Mother’s Day is just the beginning of a process of getting to really know and love her unconditionally. And with that drawing, I hope I’ve reached out to her in a way that spans our differences – and that one day, I’ll come to embrace the part of me that comes from her.

 

A Ghim Moh Pasar Pagi

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Passers by ordering street food from a Ramly Burger stand.

Every so often, the Ghim Moh Food and Wholesale Market would be more hectic than what would usually be expected on a weekend. Saturday sees snaking queues winding outside many of the hawker stalls as families use the time to lunch together, old friends meet up over ice buckets and bottles of chilled beer, and tourists roam the aisles. But this week, the crowd was swelled by visitors who had come for a different sight. Large red-and-white striped shelters had been erected over long white tent flaps that surrounded the market: the pasar pagi was in session today.

The pasar pagi (‘day market’ in Malay) could be considered a somewhat tamer version of its more commonly-mentioned counterpart, the pasar malam (‘night market’). Both are still quintessential, if mundane, features of the local markets and hawker centres that dot the island. On my family’s regular drives down Clementi, I would look out the window at the market under Block 726 and be captivated by the rows of antique ceramics and potted plants put out for sale along the walkways. At some of the larger markets, there would even be small-scale amusement rides: Ferris wheels, inflatable slides, Viking ships. It was if these were the local communities’ answer to a carnival: often they were dirt-cheap, but managed to add a subtly festive air to the areas that they graced.

This particular pasar pagi in Ghim Moh was larger than any I had seen before, even before the market had been renovated two years ago. And yet, in the middle of a weekend afternoon, the shopkeepers carried themselves with a suave nonchalance – befitting, I felt, the transience of their establishments. A long stall with trays of fried chicken and cuttlefish on sticks behind glass counters was emblazoned with the distinct red-and-yellow emblems of the locally renown Ramly Burger: two sesame buns sandwiching a chicken patty, mayonnaise, lettuce and a fried egg. Plastic legs dangled from the ceiling of another stall, displaying a variety of psychedelic stockings. A middle-aged man bent down to assemble the colourful cartoon phone cases he had for sale, while at the stall next to him a woman beckoned a passing family with offers of tumbled stones and silver necklaces set with agate. One shop bristled with rows of crockery, another with plastic clothes pegs and stationery, still another with handphone cover screens.

Despite the sheer ubiquity and mundaneness of many of the items on display, each particular day market bears its own quirks. Many of the clothes stalls focused on a riotous array of sarong kebaya (traditional Malay blouse-dresses) and other traditional garments worn by the Malay-Muslim community, and saw headscarves displayed on mannequin heads under flowing racks of dresses trimmed with lace and intricate floral patterns. The stallholders selling electronic equipment were almost always young, somewhat surly-looking men, looking on at the flow of customers in singlets and bermuda shorts. And then there were, of course, incidences of the latest sales tactics innovated by itinerant shopkeepers. The owners of a fruit juice shop had put up a somewhat elaborate skit to attract customers, involving a bumbling ‘ah ma’ (‘grandmother’ in Chinese) with an established business and her young daughter (both played by young women) who exhorts her to adapt to modern business conditions.

These shopkeepers and little businesses could be seen as nothing more than different iterations of the same classic archetypes – that of the wandering salesmen at housing estates, forming part of the normal milieu of life in those communities. It is these moments, just walking around the stalls and savouring the little curiosities they had to offer, that can be the most gratifying. That afternoon, I, too, found myself content to be part of a faceless, understated of daily life flowing between the aisles.

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The display of a stall selling socks, stockings and leggings.

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A stallowner adjusting the display of his phone cases on sale.

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An array of sarong kebaya for sale. Such shops at the day markets are typically run by Malay or Indian Muslims.

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A vendor selling tutu kueh, which are small round steamed rice cakes filled with sweet fillings such as shredded sweetened coconut or palm sugar and then served on little strips of pandan leaf.

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Domestic helpers searching through clothes on sale during their rest day.

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An impromptu skit by the owners of a fruit juice stand.

Looking for Langurs

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Earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that mainland Singapore might still be home to some rare species. In particular, there was one on the brink of extinction that badly needed a fighting chance at survival. The local branch of the Jane Goodall Institute had called for volunteers at the beginning of the year for a biodiversity survey on the population of Raffles’ banded langurs (Presbytis femoralis femoralis), and I leapt at the chance to do my bit part for local wildlife.

There was a surprisingly diverse array of interested volunteers – families with septuagenarians and primary-school-age children, middle-aged bachelors and couples all listening with rapt attention as a seasoned volunteer expounded on the problems of low genetic diversity and habitat loss that the Singapore population faced. Perhaps, however, the group I went with seemed like a more motley crew. Four teenagers, myself included, met up at the Casuarina Curry outlet near the trail for a quick lunch of roti prata and some friendly ribbing about relationships and gossip. We looked like the sorts of people who would be more willing to spend time at the mall than trekking through a stretch of forest looking for rare primates.

Then, one of them whipped out his handphone to show us a video of two sickened chicks that had barely grown their feathers. “Nightjars,” he had replied off-handedly, and explained how they had died of asphyxiation due to improper feeding. The group was well-armed with the tools they knew they’d need from prior experience along the forest trails – insect repellent, caps, and well-polished telescopes and binoculars. And among this group was my secondary school friend, C. She professed to having walked many kilometres through the nature reserves in her job with the local forestry agency, carrying what she had described as eight kilograms of field equipment. She wouldn’t be taking us along the trails that the volunteers had recommended – she knew the general haunts of a family group of langurs, and would take us to them.

We set out, spirits high, in single file, along the winding road that led into Lower Pierce Reservoir. The intermittent jokes and laughter we exchanged at the beginning died away, and gradually we proceeded in steely silence. All eyes were on the vegetation beside us. Their sharp gazes picked up the husks of felled trees, sprigs of purple wildflowers and the shallow pits dug by wild boars into the grass at the trees’ edge. The roar of traffic and the clamour of restaurateurs was replaced by a tranquil, deep silence.

The denizens of the forest began to reveal themselves to us. I didn’t notice the families of macaques that lined our path until one of my companions casually pointed them out. They stood, huddled up in pairs, watching with a cautious anticipation. There would be drivers through the forest who would ply them with food from plastic bags, and as a result they’d become accustomed to assaulting anyone carrying them. For now, they looked at us like the residents of a neighbourhood would look at strangers from their front porch. A mother suckling an infant exchanged friendly moo-ing calls with a large shaggy male next to her. Two youngsters froze wide-eyed as they saw us coming, and pelted back into the bushes. A third male bared his teeth at us while an alarm call rattled in the background (to C’s bemusement: “we’re not even doing anything, alarm call us for what!”). Every half-kilometre another family would show up, visible in the distance as dark shapes outlined starkly against the tarmac. We were on their land now.

Other little sights along the way broke the monotony of our hike. One of my companions stopped by a muddy brown puddle that had formed in a pothole. “Tadpoles,” he murmured, pointing to a mass of small black shapes that started and wriggled away when we raised our fingers over them. (“What sort of defense mechanism is that!? They’ll be eaten by a bittern or something.”) A ball of frogspawn sat in the middle of another pond, flanked by the spongy foam of a spittle-bug between two blades of grass. A hollow thrumming signalled woodpeckers; a quick flitting at the corner of our vision pointed to flycatchers. The baleful cries of drongos echoed in the distance.

Two kilometres on, and we hadn’t seen any langurs. And yet we’d settled into a pleasurable rhythm. The thing that C liked best about the job was the walking. For me, the walking was a means to a greater, more sublime enjoyment – the feeling that I was stepping between the urbane and the undeveloped, a realm where the looming trees seemed to hold sway over the lone cars driving by and dwarved in their shadow.

Eventually, we reached a location that was ambiguously referred to as ‘Lamp-post 103’. The canopy here grew thickly overhead, bathing us in dappled light. The last macaques we had seen were several hundred metres away. The only sound we heard was the dim whir of crickets. C loitered behind, staring alert into the treetops.

Then we heard a crash. Leaves fell, trembling, onto the area where we stood. Another crash through the trees, and I looked up to see a large dark blur in the branches. A baleful face looked down at us, framed in dark grey fur with large, wet brown eyes. It seemed to be startled at its discovery, seemingly wondering how we had managed to find it. And just as suddenly as it had appeared, it took off for the protection of the forest. Our spirits lifted – we’d found one.

Down in a ditch running along a side path, we found the shell of an old red-eared slider. C picked it up and threw it down a slope towards the reservoir. Its neck and limbs sprang out and it scrabbled gratefully away before melting below the surface of the water. This seemed contrary to our aim of helping to conserve local wildlife like the langurs, and by helping introduce a specimen of an invasive species into the reservoir we might have gotten into deep trouble.

But at this moment we were acting beyond thoughts of conservation. None of us regretted what we did. I had the feeling we were acting out of something deeper. Perhaps it was the peace of the woods that had subconsciously beckoned us towards the simple celebration of Nature herself.

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The shell of a red-eared slider that had been abandoned near the reservoir.

The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough

P1030468Serene Centre, it seems, is replete with little restaurants and cafés – little food havens in a city that can otherwise feel busy and unfeeling. A newcomer seems to have stealthily appeared at the far end of the building, overlooking the roads leading through the Bukit Timah area with a placid nonchalance. For in The Bakery, new flavours are fermenting each day, gaining their distinctive tastes unclouded by the bustle that those roads represent.

It was how sheerly unassuming the building’s facade was that made me slow down and pay attention to it. Behind its glass walls – with the building’s opening hours written in silver marker next to the door – was a surprisingly dimly-lit interior. Sitting off in the darkest corner was a large two-tier cast-iron oven, and next to it slept one of the owners on a wooden stool. The store was run by a middle-aged couple, and the husband of the pair was moving silently, almost serenely, between the customers hunched over cups of hand-brewed coffee at the wooden tables lining the walkway. Our gazes met; he smiled briefly, cordially.

There were five different types of freshly-baked sourdough bread for sale that afternoon, ranging from baguettes to wholemeal to country loaves. Each of them possessed a distinctly deep dark golden-brown hue: this were not the insipid pale colours of commercial white bread, but the unassuming shades of food that had been forged in steady, patient fires – like the carvings of a craftsman. On the counter sat trays of chocolate cookies and caprese sandwiches, neither of which betrayed their dough’s unorthodox origins. Beyond a small printed sign tacked to the side of the door detailing the health benefits of sourdough, however, there were no signs that the bakery was attempting to pass itself off as one of the numerous health-food chains that have mushroomed over the island. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding.

Had it not been for the unassuming blackboard menus at the front and back of the store, I would have hardly known it was supposed to be a eatery. This was a space that seemed quietly, subtly devoted to bread. A low wooden bookshelf behind the door revealed a selection of well-thumbed volumes on artisan bread and food. The ovens dominated the whole of the indoor shop space. And as I stood peering intently at the menu, conspicuously outlined against the doorway, the owners glided around me, never once pressing me for a purchase. It was a small shop, and a niche enterprise: they would have to be dedicated individuals to devote their time and space to the promotion of a slower, more thoughtful way of eating.

Singaporean food is known for being diverse, loud and colourful. Meals can be whipped up in massive woks by hawkers sweating over a roaring fire, and a common image in many hawker centres is one of hungry crowds milling late into the night around tables laden with a massive spread of dishes from many stalls. But there are times when the more well-heeled urbanites – or perhaps even simply the disillusioned – would yearn for a slower pace of eating. In this way, a nation where eating is said to be the national pastime has been introduced to the advent of slow food. It was against this backdrop that this bakery must have sprung up, reflected not just in the culinary medium it has chosen to express itself but also the atmosphere that it bred in its own little corner of the island.

Some would say that such chains are disingenuous; part of a fad of ‘hipster’ food outlets to cater to the wealthy and socially-conscious. Others might say it detracts from the gems to be found, of much better taste and lower price, at the grittier-seeming hawker centres. And then there will be those who simply don’t like the taste of sourdough. But to me, a space that can promote the treasuring of food and the joy of eating – sitting with a cup of coffee and a sandwich and looking out at the view beyond you, letting time pass by and taste flow across your palate – is as worthy as any.

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The day’s baked specials.

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A selection of country loaves.

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The store’s little stash of books on artisan bread.

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The Unwelcome Visitor

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Despite my general respect for the numerous little creatures that frequent the garden from time to time, there are occassions when I am compelled to make exceptions. For the cuddliest ones can sometimes be the most deceiving, and while I would love to make the space a home for all the animals that stumble upon it there are others who would not be so forgiving.

One cloudy afternoon, the only sound that seemed to permeate the garden was a rough scraping, like something being shredded. A slight shiver of dread seized me as I stepped out to investigate. The culpirt was there in full view – a brown plantain squirrel clinging on face-down to a torch ginger stem, scraping off the bark with its sharp lower incisors and leaving great strips of green hanging in limp ribbons off the plant. At my approach, it flinched – tensing for the inevitable. My mother yelled and clapped her hands loudly, sending my dog flying towards the yard in an attempt to scare off the little rascal. And remarkably, it didn’t retreat straightaway. I saw it lurking at the top of the stone wall behind the ginger grove, watching and waiting for a ripe oppurtunity to continue its foraging.

The mundane activities of the plantain squirrel have always drawn ire from the other members of my family. It not only tears the bark off stems and tree trunks, but will strip the leaves off of branches and gladly help itself to any fruits within its reach. And yet in some ways, the plantain squirrel is a more innocuous creature than its red and grey relatives in the West. For one, it doesn’t steal food from parkgoers or compete with native species. In fact, as one of the few native mammals common to Singapore’s urban areas, it could sometimes add momentary colour to the day with its intrepid antics. Many of my classmates would lean over the balconies of the classroom windows just to watch one perched in a distant tree, captivated by the surprise encounter. There was even one particularly brave little specimen who also used to run along the pipes under the ceiling and on stair railings. I have no idea if it was aware of the danger that could have been posed to it from the school administration (which had mercilessly torn down a sunbird’s nest built on one of the potted palms outside a board room), and admired it regardless.

And so I find myself quietly rooting for these garden pests. They face not just immediate threats to their freedom in the form of disgruntled gardeners and janitors, but also encroachment on their natural habitat in the form of the ever-expanding city-state. And yet, they have managed to take this all of this in their stride. These squirrels continue to thrive, be it in the crowns of trees at the public parks or scampering across pavements to reach safe ground. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their other Southeast Asian cousins: at least one of whom, the cream-coloured giant squirrel, seems to have been wiped out with advent of industrialisation on the island.

The same squirrel that had tried to savage my mother’s ginger plants has lately reappeared in her frangipani trees. I’ve seen it fight with mynas (and always outnumbered), jump from house and house, and continue intruding on our plants with shameless abandon. Some days, I wonder if it is the same squirrel that I had found as a baby several years ago, abandoned in the husk of a dead tree outside the garden fence. I had tried to take it in, but it had constantly wailed for its mother, and at the end of the day I had placed it back in the tree in the hopes that they would be reunited. It is my fervent hope that they indeed were, or that this little squirrel had otherwise survived and grown to adulthood and continued being the little fighter it was. So I never try to chase it away whenever I see it – part of me will always root for it in its daily struggle for survival, and admire its understated tenacity.

Perhaps the plantain squirrels have a greater purpose with their adorable appearance – of helping to foster an appreciation of whatever little wildlife the island has left. And though it is a worthy symbol of resilience, it is also worth remembering that these seemingly common creatures also need to be cherished. The day we no longer see even the most widespread of urban species jumping through the trees would be a sad day indeed.

At A Deity’s Birthday

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The sight of a lion dancers’ van parked outside the outdoor car-park at the Ghim Moh Wholesale Market and Food Centre stopped me dead in my tracks. It was not just the anticipation of a free spectacle, but the sheer scale at which it would be conducted, that excited me. Eight massive red lions’ heads were lined up on the ground, and there were even more that were being paraded on the shoulders of performers into the market. Given the cost of hiring even a single lion dancer (two ‘lions’ can cost as much as SGD$500), and a subsequent procession of even more elaborate dragon figures, something grand was about to happen.

I followed the troupe to the small atrium that separated the hawker centre from the market. The open space had been completely remade for what appeared to be a festive occassion. A massive red-clothed altar took up half of the floor space, the cloth decorated with Chinese characters in gold thread. It didn’t appear to be struggling under the weight of the offerings piled on it: fruit girdled with red tape, pyramids of long noodles and arranged behind a bronze urn filled with peacock feathers and flanked with two large glass candle-holders. Behind it on more tables was a huge spread: bak chang (glutinous rice dumplings), red-dyed eggs, hunks of braised beancurd and more crowned by four entire roast suckling pigs. A massive crowd had gathered at the edges of the courtyard, with some reverently raising their palms together towards the altar or stepping forward to offer incense. And in the background were the methodical, reedy tones of a Teochew traditional puppet show, emanating from behind a large pink stage at the other end of the courtyard. A faint registering in my head that this was probably a commemoration of the market’s patron deity – Tu Di Gong – was overshadowed by an insatiable curiosity, and I dove into the crowd.

Celebrations among housing estates of the birthdays of various gods and goddesses in the Chinese folk religion pantheon is a fairly uncommon practice. It had been the flour peaches and noodles – traditional signs of longevity – on the altar that had clued me in to the fact that this was a birthday celebration for the local deity. There was an unusually festive air, with children gleefully climbing onto the bare wooden tables behind the altar while adults stood around in animated conversation. Even the non-Chinese workers at the market were moved up to the edge of the crowd, peering out to see what would happen. As I raised my phone to take pictures of the scene, I felt oddly self-conscious. I knew nothing about and could not be involved in what was going on. I was effectively a stranger in what could be said to be my community.

My thoughts were interrupted by the characteristic drumroll of a lion dance performance. The puppeteers paused. A pair of elders suddenly emerged from the crowd, ushering the other onlookers backward with sharp exclamations in Hokkien. Then the first group of lions burst onto the scene. I, and the rest of the crowd, had seen many a lion dance in our lifetime, but the tumbling and jumping and whirling of the colourful creatures was as enrapturing as ever. The drumrolls became lower and steadily softer as the lions hunkered down, preparing for cai qing (literally ‘plucking green’). The performer supporting the ‘tail’ of the lion would actually be busily peeling mandarin oranges on the ground at this stage of the performance whilst passing shredded lettuce leaves to the performer in front. Any aspect of a lion dance is supposed to be good luck, and so there were members of the crowd rushing forward to pick up the leaves that the lion appeared to have spat from its mouth.

One performance was, of course, not enough for this special occassion. Shortly after, the dragon dancers burst onto the scene. Three dragons in gold, white and black were brought out respectively at separate times. Each was supported at a different section of its body by nine performers with metal poles, making the dragon writhe and spin through the air in pursuit of a fiery pearl supported by a tenth performer. Each time a new performance started the puppeteers had to stop theirs, and I wondered if the deity in particular would have enjoyed such erratic changes in the entertainment schedule. And then it dawned on me that there was perhaps a separation of functions: the puppet performance was meant for show, and the lion and dragon dances were meant to usher in good luck.

And it seemed, the latter was also brought in to appeal to the human audience. This was made clear by the sudden appearance of a 3m-tall metal pole in the middle of the courtyard, with only a narrow bar near the top section. We watched, stunned, as a particularly agile lion dancer scaled the pole whilst supporting the heavy lion’s head, supporting himself on one leg at the top of the pole. Party poppers went off, a banner unfurled with a flourish. The crowd roared. And as suddenly as they started, the performances were over. The onlookers began to line up to partake of the lavish spread that stood behind the altar, and the lion dancers began to wheel away their drums and props and were out of sight.

There was not so much a religious aspect to this commemoration, I thought, as one of community. A deity’s birthday was also used as an oppurtunity to provide free food and entertainment and develop closer ties among the participants, who were mostly adherents of the syncretic Buddhist-Taoist Chinese folk religion. There were some questions I came away wanting to answer: what did each item on the altar mean, and how did each gain its significance? Could these ceremonies have a deeper socio-cultural function beyond what I hypothesised? But while I would never be able to connect to these practices spiritually, part of me is proud of the cultural colour they bring to my city.

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Two community elders stacking large bales of paper money behind the altar. Paper money and other paper replicas of material goods are often burned during Chinese folk religion ceremonies as it is believed they will serve as new possessions for the deceased in the afterlife. In the background is the market’s statue of Tu Di Gong garlanded with jasmine flowers for the occassion.

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A traditional Chinese puppet stage, nowadays only performed at ancestral worship ceremonies. The figures depicted on each side of the performance area represent the Eight Immortals from Taoist mythology. The inside of the back of the stage is painted to resemble a Confucian domestic altar, while the piece of paper tacked above it bears the title of the play: ‘Thousand-Gold Wife and Ten-Thousand-Gold Grandchildren’.

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The mannequin puppets gathered on-stage at the end of the performance. 

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A man on percussions backstage of the puppet theatre. There was also a woman who was singing the play’s dialogue directly behind the stage, and a man on a well-worn keyboard to the other side.

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Seven orange lions ‘bowing’ before the altar.

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A close-up of the contents of the altar. Besides a cylinder of joss sticks, plates bearing various types of fruit and a pyramid of noodles, there is also a tea set and a massive bowl of thick flour cakes that are traditionally used as offerings. A lion dance troupe can be seen in the background to the right.

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Troupe members preparing mandarin oranges to be used in the cai qing portion of the lion dance performances.

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Part of the crowd of onlookers that had built up at the hawker centre.

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Devotees helping themselves to the buffet spread that had been prepared from the contents of the food offerings behind the altar.

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A dragon dancer standing on top of a tall metal pole for an especially ambitious performance.

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A full ensemble of dragon dancers mid-performance.

On A Search for Success

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Local secondary school students after receiving their ‘O’ Level results. Source.

Friday was a harrowing day for a large swathe of students across the island. The release of examination results for the candidates of the 2016 Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (often just called ‘A’ Levels for short) would undoubtedly represent a momentous closure for many students after the typical 12 years of formal education one typically undergoes in the local education system. And this could be momentous for better or for worse. Having friends who went through that moment yesterday – and having undergone a similar one myself – made me deeply aware of how significant it was to so many young people across the country.

I had been far from composed. The back of the school hall was lined with teachers standing behind identical plastic desks, ready to hand out sealed envelopes to students one by one. Each envelope contained a few sheets of paper printed with numbers that were simultaneously inconsequential and important. People laughed, cried, screamed, hugged, posed for pictures, shook hands. I was both comforted and overjoyed by my own results. It was feeling like the final step in a flight of stairs had been laid to a series of doors I could access. I felt like they were something I deserved; accessories to my expected set of achievements. It was giddying, and at the same time frightening to realise how much my results mattered to me personally.

But I have friends who weren’t as lucky. And in a system where one’s academic achievement can seem to make or break your chances at a good future, it must have been crushing to know you had achieved less. And it must have been an equally momentous moment for them to feel those same doors shut off to them for just a different set of numbers.

It is hard to discuss the life of a Singaporean, I feel, without touching upon the climate fostered by the local education system. The notoriously competitive education system here has been the subject of both admiration from abroad and acrimony from within. It has indirectly resulted in mothers placing reservations for places in top-ranked primary schools upon the birth of their children, four-year-olds being placed in after-school tuition centres, and an eleven-year-old plunging to his death for fear of academic failure. It has produced batches of students who perform above the world average in standardised assessments, and for many, a set of expectations they have felt pressured to fulfil. The average student tries to go to a junior college and aim for the Science stream to do well enough to become a doctor or engineer. Or they try to become a lawyer. Or they try to get past the prying questions of family on how they are going to get a life with any other job – god forbid, an arts-related one.

Perhaps some of what I’ve mentioned above is exaggeration. But from the stifling effects of the local education system seem to have made themselves clear to others. I recently read a comment by a user on a college-related forum commenting on how Singaporean university students were ‘uninteresting’ and advising another user not to go there for further studies due to a ‘general lack of spontaneity’ on local campuses. It saddens as much as sobers me. From what I know of my peers, I don’t deny that the average Singaporean high-school-age student may have a tendency to put their studies over many other aspects of their social and emotional well-being (many of my classmates survived their last year of junior college on 2 hours of sleep a night). There are exceptions to this stereotype, and I’m glad to have met many people who were capable of both working and playing hard. But it is still upsetting that we should all be collectively seen as a bunch of dullards. Characterised, for all our academic achievement, as a stagnant learning environment.

Would this environment have the potential to only lead to a cold, career-driven urban society? I’ve heard of numerous parents who take their children out of the country to escape the rigours of Singaporean testing, and other students who express serious thoughts about migrating out because ‘Singaporeans are so square’. This kindled my desire to create my blog. I wanted to try to show them that they were wrong, by searching out and finding things to love about this island I call home. But at the same time, I know that true change can only come from within the individual, and can only blossom slowly throughout society.

It will take a long time before a results-oriented culture can be tempered in the education system. Efforts have been made to change the way in which achievements are recognised by student troupes competing in the Singapore Youth Festival, as well as to stop revealing the top scorers for each of the national school-leaving examinations to prevent an unhealthy emphasis on exam results. It hasn’t led to a significant shift in attitudes, because many students and parents fundamentally believe in figuring out where they (or their children) stand in the pecking order both on academic and non-academic fronts. But in order for the academic environment to be revamped, a more holistic assessment of every student’s strengths has to be made.

One of my classmates once remarked that some of her cousins were ‘under-achievers’ because they ‘didn’t even go to junior college’. By what measure is an under-achiever? Who says that you have to take the most prestigious-sounding route in the system in order to succeed? Is it really for everyone? I have met some peers who had been coerced into taking certain subjects because of the assurance that it was their route to success, only to perform below expectations. And there are still others who have gone to the sometimes-vilified polytechnics and vocational institutes and managed to become successful in their own right.

I hope that those students who have been crushed by their results will not be made to inferior just because of a bad grade. They may feel trapped between re-taking the exams within a system that frustrates them, or having to face what they might feel is a despondent future. Sometimes, society can blind us to other routes of achieving our potential.

But there are routes outside of the system – they may be unorthodox, but they have worked for many. And I hope that they will be able to find and embrace other forms of achievement – quality time with family, loving and supporting friends, a healthy spirituality. Or even  just the sheer potential that comes from being young and alive. They can mean a lot more than a bunch of numbers on a results slip.

Preparing.

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A sketch I made of volunteers chatting over a meal at Willing Hearts’ dining area.

“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.”

8 a.m. on a Monday morning. A merciless downpour was raging outside. Rain lashed against the fence of the small vegetable garden and howled over the concrete walls forming the walkway that led to the food preparation area. It was a small grey courtyard scattered with long tables and plastic stools. The former were almost perpetually covered in newspapers and laden with massive plastic baskets of vegetables. Today it was celery. The previous days had seen onions, chye sim and milk cabbage cross the floor. The few brave souls who had weathered the storm to turn up for duty set to work – hauling out bundles of leaves, chopping up stems, arranging the empty baskets – with wordless determination.

I had been assigned to wash several kilograms of celery that day. I hoisted each basket out onto the edge of the massive sink that sat the edge of the room. They had sharp edges, and occassionally my fingertips would prickle as I cut myself yet again. Massive bundles of celery tumbled out and I plunged my hands between them, trying as much as I could to scrub away the slime that clung to each stem. Just earlier this morning, they had come festering in plastic bags, many with wilting leaves or stems that had liquefied into masses of orange mush. Under the diligent hands of volunteers, they had been trimmed and cut to edible standards. I was another cog in this menial, yet vital, process to turn leftovers into food that could possibly support an entire housing estate.

Standing next to me was Mr Tay. He was one of the mainstays in the team of tireless volunteers manning the operation – repeating instructions on how to slice the celery stems properly, turning around to delegate individuals to the delivery department, and going back to carry more baskets of celery to the giant blue walk-in freezer. That morning, he had pointed the letters mounted on the wall out to me. He told me how it all began.

“Soup is for cold countries where they also serve out potatoes and bread. It’s an American term. Tony – the short guy? You’ve seen him? – was the one who started this with a group of volunteers with his church. They started by giving out bread, then they moved on to canned food before it became this. We’ve moved locations 5 already.”

Five years ago, I had visited Willing Hearts’ old premises at Geylang (thankfully, there are pockets of the area that weren’t converted into a red-light district). It had definitely been smaller, without its own vegetable garden and the preparation area being consigned to an offshoot of the kitchen. But that hadn’t helped me learn how much the organisation had come, and how much it had to go.

“This kitchen is always busy. We are open 365 days a year, even Christmas and Chinese New Year. We don’t really have special meal plans for Chinese New Year, but sometimes we get donated food. Mostly wholesalers supply to us; the celery was from the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market. The meats are mostly chicken and fish; mostly from frozen food. Some of them give us their leftovers at the end of the day, and others just want to throw them away because they know it can’t sell.”

Willing Hearts is one of the country’s more established charities, with no shortage of volunteers. And yet, looking at the meagre assembly that had arrived that stormy morning to cut and peel vegetables, I knew that this stream of volunteers was not so much a blessing as it was a necessity. It was an unfortunate reality that the best of intentions could not always guarantee the best of support or resources. The volunteers might have been eager, but not all of them were equally equipped to handle their tasks (there were two people that day who fainted after accidentally cutting their fingers), and the sorry quality of the meat and vegetables the kitchen had to make do with made it a daily race to process the ingredients in time so that Willing Hearts’ beneficiaries all over the country could get possibly the only hot meals they would have that day.

And yet, the variety of volunteers I had seen was surprising. Children as young as six were packing food alongside teen-aged schoolgirls and septuagenarians. There was even a group of old housewives who would come without fail every morning to help out while their husbands were out working. A whole spectrum of Singaporeans were willing to devote a little bit of their lives each day to contribute to this cause. And as long as there are people willing to help, this operation would be able to survive.

In that stormy morning, I felt I learned a little about hope.

Through the Lens of Ice Cream

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Whenever I stroll around the Botanic Gardens, my feet will always take me back to one particular location. They bring me around the neat wooden tables, thronging with expatriate families and their dogs, crowding the outside of the Da Paulo bistro next to the train station. They take me past glass-fronted wineries and décor shops, through a tire repair shop with waves of heat roaring off car exhaust pipes. And every single time, they stop at Island Creamery.

I never learned if the specific Island Creamery branch I visit was their flagship branch. But even though it has expanded into a chain that can be found in shopping centres around the island, the store tucked away at the corner of Serene Centre will always be the one that holds the most character—and memories—for me. The checquered tiles (ever so subtly faded), round marble tables and diner-style menu hanging from the ceiling have hardly changed in the six years I have visited this ice cream parlour. A jaunty striped parasol stands behind the coffee roaster and water dispenser, and porcelain cups and saucers etched with dark green floral designs sit on top of a red Simonelli grinder. Visitors come and go at odd hours, inspired by sudden a sweet tooth—or perhaps just by the simple circumstance of habit, like in my case.

The first thing any visitor does is press themselves up against the glass covers enshrining the rectangular tubs that hold the day’s flavours for sale. They range from the mundane (Burnt Caramel and Cookies & Cream) to the inventive (Black Sesame Oreo and Tiger Sorbet) to the unabashedly local (Teh Tarik and Ping Pong Milo, the latter of which is ice cream flavoured after the chocolate malt drink that is so popular in Singapore and studded with tiny marshmallows). My eyes will always scan the multi-coloured crevasses for Fresh Banana. It was the flavour I had tried on my first visit to the store as a shy thirteen-year-old in an over-sized school uniform that hung off my shoulders. I have been hooked onto it ever since. Over the years my taste in ice cream might have expanded – I might order a Red Bean, and lately the alluring rose aroma of their new Isfahan flavour has made that another staple of mine – but at the end of the day, I come back to Fresh Banana. And it was that flavour I chose as my accompaniment to a lazy Friday afternoon, with a glass of Coke thrown in for good measure.

Many types of Singaporeans, it seems, are drawn by the allure of the ice cream parlour. Two men in dress shirts and work pants sat down at a wooden side table and began conversing in low voices. A mother walked in with her young son, pressing him for his opinion as a clerk explained the different ice cream flavours. I looked down to sip from my Coke, and when I looked up again there was another mother with another young boy at her side. A gaggle of young women, all with hair dyed strawberry blonde and toting plastic takeaway cups of milk tea, strolled in. And then there are, of course, the groups of secondary school students who would fill the shop with peals of laughter. But the sight that struck me most was of the middle-aged woman sitting alone in the middle of the store, a waffle cone of strawberry sorbet in her hand. A grown adult indulging, for that moment, in what must have been a little scoop of innocence.

Perhaps it’s this shared experience of sweetness that draws so many groups of people to this one shop. And yet, paradoxically, it can also be a site of transience. The employees are never the same. And I hardly see the same group of visitors twice – though, I am sure, they return to the store at other times. The students are drawn from a range of schools all over the Bukit Timah area where Serene Centre is situated (and sometimes even further), and there are those who simply stray into the shop one day and leave as quietly as they came. But maybe it’s the ability of this place to bring people together, even momentarily, that makes Island Creamery have an influence beyond being an ice cream chain. A corkboard near the back of the store bears letters from grateful community beneficiaries – a junior college that had managed to fund a charity kayaking marathon, a message from the Singapore Armed Forces on how the chain had organised an appreciation event for their servicemen. All of these were proud badges of ice cream’s unexpected ability to not just delight, but even inspire.

I finish licking the watery ice-cream melt from the inside of my cup and leaned back into the plush blue sofa I had chosen near the window. Sitting in this store and watching the world go by had an oddly soothing effect – it made me feel, for even just a fleeting moment, that my world was at peace. And as I walked out the store, I knew it would be waiting another day, receiving visitors with open arms and a little scoop of childhood.

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The inside of the store at 1 p.m. on a Friday.

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A snippet of the ‘Our Community’ board at the back of the store.

Poetry at Booktique

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A small indie local bookstore in the heart of the Central Business District. Something of an ignominy that, at the same time, makes Booktique all the more valuable a discovery amid the glitzy retailers of City Link Mall. After traversing glaring storefronts for Levi’s and Cotton-On in Singapore’s largest subterranean shopping mall, my eyes caught a sudden splash of colour – the warm glow of the wooden counters and shelves that pulsed subtly past the harsh fluorescent of the rest of the mall. It felt like a quaint refuge shielded from the throbbing commercial bustle around it – after all, it was where writers, some of society’s most imaginative and often unintentionally isolated people, shop.

Already, a small crowd had gathered near the front of the store for a spoken word performance. The poet was Ng Yi Sheng – a queer poet, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, and one of the country’s more quixotic artists. There were well-heeled middle-aged women next to enraptured schoolgirls and young men in T-shirts and slacks: a rare segment of the more artistically-inclined, I presume, who only revealed their inclinations through their presence at this event. I drew nearer, and was approached by a slight man with large round glasses that gave him a mouse-ish appearance. “Are you here for the event?” he had asked timidly, and when I nodded he retreated into a hidden storeroom to retrieve an extra chair. He was Anthony, the owner of its store and its only employee, and seemed to blend into the backdrop as much as the books he was selling.

Yi Sheng’s poetry drew me in. When I arrived, he had begun on a poem about the sex scandals throughout modern Singaporean history – with all the words that had been blacked-out in its original publication now freely spoken to the public. A galumphing chorus, dovetailing into singsong, echoed sharply into the space. What followed was an eager wave of applause. After several swigs from a water bottle and riffling through manuscripts, he began to intone another poem – the slow, ominous lines from ‘外婆’ (‘Grandmother’ in Mandarin), detailing stories of his grandmother’s life until her passing, sinking to his knees as he recalled the ‘sons and daughters / growing in her belly’. The ominous became the hysterical as he started another poem on the national pledge while screaming with a pen in his mouth, and climaxed in the aptly-named ‘Loud Poem’ involving him hitting himself over the head with the aforementioned bottle. (“I usually use a smaller one,” he confessed to concerned viewers). As scandalous as some of these poems would have been to a general audience, I couldn’t help but have the feeling that they offered a peek into the psyche of a special subset of locals – one that is hardly ever expressed except behind closed doors.

He thanked the audience for coming. Everyone burst into a final, enthusiastic round of applause. The crowd broke up around the bookstore, and in his white shirt and jeans the rapturous poet now looked just like any other patron. My fingers flew over the cover of a newly-minted lifestyle magazine (‘GENDER: A CHANGING ROLE’), the burgundy cover of a poetry anthology by an Australian Sikh convert, and the shiny yellow paperback of the story of the Indian man of the untouchable caste who cycled across eight countries to meet his beloved in Switzerland.

They came to rest on a mural at the side of the counter, depicting Anthony as a penguin in his journey to set up the store. “He suffered from depression,” he told me quietly about the artist. “When he was depressed he would draw in lines, and the lines would come together to form a circle. So he drew the circle into a penguin to tell his story in a cute way. It’s not so much a motif; more like an inspiration.” He passed me a worn picture book: ‘The Black Box’, featuring the same penguin on its cover.

For all its cute illustrations, the story of this book was unnervingly, poignantly raw. Through thick, black lines and frank visuals, the artist made his struggle with depression unflinchingly clear. It was a story that is often difficult to relay to the public, let alone in a refreshingly direct way, but the artist had done it. The words from the second-last page echoed in my head: ‘I hope that more people will understand my story.’

“If you see this chart,” Anthony continued, pointing to the mural, “I’ve been working from 2007 to now. I’ve been working everyday since I started. Sometimes I get part-timers, but most of the time it’s just me. I’m closing the shop in six months. I’ll be closing for two years because I need a break, and then I’ll be opening a new shop somewhere else. Yeah, a break will definitely be good for me.”

The closure of this little nook will be something that is regretted. With its intimate setting and eclectic collection of books, the indie bookstore lends itself to a profusion of voices – the little-known writers, poets and dreamers among us. It was a rock pool for rare literary voices, and at the same time a vital ground for the discussion of social issues that would be too taboo for mainstream media. But with the competition arising from large-scale bookstore chains and the e-book market, shops like Anthony’s were inundated. He smiled and waved as I left. And I let my eyes travel back along the shelves, knowing that they would vanish before the end of the year.

Perhaps bookstore owners like him hope that more people understand their stories, too.

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Part of the mural depicting the owner, Anthony (as a penguin), in his journey to set up the bookstore since 2007.

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