Archive | January 2015

A Meeting with Another Traveller

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Zorro was an interesting sight on the steps outside the School Of The Arts. He didn’t seem that unusual when placed against the surge of people crossing the road in the direction of Plaza Singapura–young men and women sporting shocks of red and green hair, arts school students and other pedestrians in shirts bearing anime motifs. His strident voice seemed somewhat muffled against the crowd as he crooned out a soulful ballad in Japanese, strumming on his guitar. What really set him apart was the little cardboard placard at his feet that read ‘From Japan!’–and the roguish warmth of his smile that he flashed me as I approached him, bringing to mind his namesake.

In halting English we struck up a conversation, where he revealed the ambition behind his modest performance by the street. From under his nondescript appearance shone a carefree cheerfulness, brimming from the joy of a free spirit that seems to have found a fulfilling release through his music.

“I’m travelling the world. I came from Japan. I come to Singapore because I heard it’s good for buskers. Earlier I was in the Philippines, but there the public order is very bad, and the divide between the rich and the poor is very big. After this I’m going to Malaysia, and from there I’ll be travelling to Central Asia, Middle East, Central America, South America, North America and maybe after that I will travel back to Japan. I told my parents; they’re just a little worried for my safety. Before this I lived in Australia and New Zealand. The nature there is very beautiful.

My dream has been to travel the world since I was fifteen years old. I learnt to play the guitar since I was young, but I mostly played for fun until recently. The suitcase contains all my belongings–sleeping bags, food, etc. I earn the money to travel by busking. I stay in one country to busk for a while before moving on to another country. I want to be able to produce my own series, and practicing through busking can help me to become good enough.

I think the best experience of travelling is meeting new people. Second would be food, and third would be the busking. I’ve tried chilli crab. I like spicy food, so I like Singaporean food. I’ll be playing here for maybe one more week then maybe I’ll go somewhere like Chinatown. Or somewhere local like Tampines or… Bedok.”

We ended our conversation with a mutual handshake. As I went on my way, I couldn’t help but be struck at how his sentiments seemed to echo my own. Perhaps in some way we are all travellers, and it’s the chance meetings we have when we collide with others on their own path that lead to the most meaningful experiences.

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A Temple To A New Year

The main gate of the Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The main gate of the Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor.

An tight, expectant buzz hung over Telok Ayer Street this New Year’s afternoon–which also happened to be the eleventh day of the eleventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar and the date on which the newly-refurbished Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor was to be opened to the public. The 170-year-old monument, having recently been renamed and having completed her facelift in December, seemed to take on a regal demeanour that day as she sat before the crowds above a table laden with offerings to numerous deities. Her door, festooned with an opulent red ribbon, was closed, only to be opened on very special occassions. Taoist priests in their flowing blue and black robes mingled with and slid in between special guests in white Chinese tops as well as ordinary on-lookers, engaged in a frenzy of activity as greetings and signals were exchanged before the start of the temple’s official consecration to the fiftieth anniversary of modern Singapore’s independence.

At the emcees’ announcement of the first phase of the ceremony, there was a collective perking-up of the assembly. Spectators (and some priests) brandishing cameras and smartphones surged towards the other end of the street as a cacophony of cymbals and drums erupted onto the road. Lions in bright hues of yellow, green and orange made a collective series of bows to the side gates before bounding away with wild energy, while a red-and-white dragon followed with vigorous cartwheels in his never-ending chase of his pearl. Soon after, they stilled, to make way for the procession of priests standing at attention to perform the rites that would bestow good luck upon the temple.

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Solemnly, silently, the procession of priests and musicians in their colourful, resplendent garments proceeded to the end of the road where the lion dancers had gone. At an almost imperceptible signal they started their slow march towards the main gate of the temple, each step as measured as the next. Seeing them, next to the on-lookers with all their vestiges of modernity, made me consciously aware of the mingling of old and new, tradition and progress, that underpins the essence of this island and yet continues to give strength to the veins of Chinese tradition that seemed to run through the members of the procession that day.

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Master Lee Zhiwang (left, in maroon) of the Taoist Mission giving the signal for the procession to begin.

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Musicians on the transverse flute and the sheng (vertical pipes).

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Eminent priests bringing wooden ruyi (Chinese sceptres) to the temple’s main gate.

The procession reached the main gate of the temple. A taut silence ensued. With the same wordless grace, the members of the procession spread out as the five most senior priests in purple took their positions before the table of offerings. The musicians intoned a throaty chant to the beat of metal cymbals and a muyu (‘wooden fish’, a Chinese percussion instrument). The crowd watched breathlessly, some with palms placed together before their faces in deep reverence. The most eminent priests, denoted by the golden ornaments on their headpieces, raised long thick joss sticks billowing with smoke before their faces in moments of intense devotion, before leading the others in bowing and standing again in a show of respect to the gods. One of the priests received a rectangular wooden board from an attendant and held it out in front of him, his sleeves billowing on either side of him like the wings of a bird. He then proceeded to bless the temple in circular, waltzing steps. Perhaps, I thought, he was waltzing for the deities themselves.

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A chorus of musicians stood at both ends of the offering table.

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Towards the end of the ceremony, a petition written on yellow paper and wrapped around a metal frame was burnt under the solemn gazes of the senior priests, sending wishes for prosperity skywards. I left that afternoon with the chorus of the procession ringing in my ears, and the pulse of tradition and religion brought alive by the ceremony feeling it was still pounding through my heart.