Archive | December 2016

What the Birds Could Tell Us

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After my initial encounter with the sunbirds, I had the good fortune of viewing many more species of birds on a walk I made around my neighbourhood. First there were the elusive silhouettes of swifts winging high overhead, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. It took some walking before I suddenly spotted this spotted dove making its way about its daily business. With its drab brown feathers, it would have melted seamlessly into the pavement had I not noticed its sudden burst of frantic, bobbing movement. Though the signature owl-like hoots of its fellows could be heard in the distance, this dove seemed to be travelling alone. So often have I seen these birds foraging in pairs, serene and secure in each other’s company, that seeing one on its own seemed a little unnerving. Nevertheless, the sight of these peaceful animals never fails to bring me a certain measure of calmness.

Doves were another animal I had not seen in a very long time around the neigbourhood. The periodic appearance and disappearance of certain species of birds from the area I live in sometimes makes me think that my sightings of them must have symbolic significance. There are days where I gain much comfort from thinking on the symbolism of the wild animals I happen to stumble upon. While in the West doves are often associated with peace and love, they are symbols of fidelity and longevity in Chinese symbology – so much so that the staff that is typically presented to a septuagenarian in Chinese custom is known as a ‘dove-staff’. Either way, the dove is typically known for being a gentle, nurturing animal. In the light of the New Year, I thought, perhaps it was offering me a positive symbol of hope.

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A male Oriental magpie-robin in the branches of a rain tree.

Another shape suddenly zipped past me, up into the canopy of a nearby tree. I craned my camera up to look, and immediately felt a shiver of joy. It was an Oriental magpie-robin: a species that has happily been brought back from the brink of extinction on the island. This one was a male, judging from his bolder plumage. He stopped barely long enough for me to take a picture before flying off again, landing on the edge of the roof of a nearby house and surveying his surroundings with a gutsy pride. As distinctive as this species might be (not being related very closely to either robins or magpies), it is not commonly found in any lexicon of cultural symbology. Given its remarkable jump back from the brink, I’d like to think that seeing one could be a reminder of persistence, and the promise that things will get better even as they seem to get worse.

Regardless of whether the appearance of different birds has any special meaning, I feel like there are still simple messages we can derive from Nature. It could be something as paradoxically simple and prosaic as just enjoying the time we have in the present. These birds live in the moment, never worrying much about their past or future, content to take things one day at a time. Perhaps it would be worth it to slow down once in a while, and listen carefully to the birdsong around us that is hidden in plain sight.

A Sunbird’s Life

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Amid the bustle of the sights and sounds that crowd the city, I sometimes forget to pay attention to the simpler delights much closer to home. Seeing birds flock to the garden is one of those. I’m proud of the variety of wildlife that’s attracted by the profusion of tropical plants outside in the yard – parakeets, cockatoos, starlings, sparrows, spotted doves, zebra doves, and even a pair of Oriental magpie-robins (the last is especially significant given that the species had almost gone extinct in Singapore just three decades earlier). However, none of them are as commonly-seen, or give me as much joy as seeing the sunbirds on their quest for nectar. Lately they haven’t been appearing as much due to the lack of torch ginger blossoms at this time of year, so I felt my spirits soar when I spotted this female busily feeding from a young flower.

I’ve sighted two species of sunbird in my garden thus far: the olive-backed and crimson sunbirds. To my surprise, I discovered that this female was neither – judging from the broken eye ring that framed her face she was, in fact, a brown-throated sunbird. Most of them come singly, all the better to take advantage of the huge torch ginger grove that flanks the side of the house. While the torch ginger seems to be their favourite, I have also seen them try to satisfy themselves from chilli flowers, pink powder-puff and clematis blossoms. Thankfully she had found a few newly-opened ginger flowers, and flitted from plant to plant, drinking nectar with a greedy urgency.

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Female brown-throated sunbird on a mature torch ginger flower.

Occassionally she would look up with nervous alarm, darting her head from side to side before she resumed feeding. There would be times of the year where the male sunbirds would advertise themselves from the top of the fence, and dart around the canopy searching for mates. For now, however, she was merely watching out for danger. I watched, transfixed, from within the house, daring not to come too near lest she fly away. At last, her belly filled, she perched on the stem of a woody vine and began to preen herself. In the shade provided by the yam leaves overhead, her translucent flight feathers took on a delicate, greenish gossamer hue.

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Suddenly, a series of sharp chirps cut through the air. She took off and landed on a taller branch, responding with a sharp cry that sounded almost accusatory. By this time I was watching them from behind a window, and craned my neck to look for the source of the sound. It was a male sunbird of the same species. The late afternoon sunlight fell briefly over his blue-and-purple head feathers, catching a faint iridescent gleam. Both birds launched into a verbal joust, calling loudly and flitting from perch from perch in agitation over the right to these stomping grounds. Though their cries might sound pleasant to the human ear, the songs of these birds have a much more pragmatic purpose: to assert themselves and help them fight for their survival.

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The intruder! A male brown-throated sunbird staking his territorial claims.

After what seemed like a long argument, the male took off huffily. Almost instantly, the female flew back to her original perch and resumed preening herself, looking a lot calmer than she had been just seconds earlier. As some clouds briefly passed over the sun and left her in shadow, I stepped out to take a better look. Startled, she flew off, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.

The milieu of the daily lives of animals is no less interesting than the daily lives of humans. I like to think that with their complex array of calls, displays and signals not easily understood by the human species, the animal life is a harder one to piece together and appreciate. Yet, that afternoon I felt like I had caught a glimpse into the window of what it would really be like to be a sunbird – the freedom to fly where one pleases, mingled with a turbulent undercurrent of the need for self-preservation. Such is the beauty and complexity of Mother Nature.

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Inside St Joseph’s Church

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A stained glass window to the right of the church’s main entranceway depicting the baptism of Jesus by Apostle John, with an angel overlooking the sight.

After my previous discovery of St Joseph’s Church, I yearned to be able to have a glimpse of the inside. At the same time, there was something impressively ornate about the building that almost deterred me from going in – a sense, I’d say, that I might be intruding on something sacred. But on a rainy Thursday I found myself standing outside a side door left ajar that led into the main sanctuary. I carefully shook my umbrella dry on the steps outside (I was too afraid of accidentally dirtying the floor), and walked in.

Immediately, I found myself swallowed by a vast quiet. The rain that had gotten onto my bag and clothes suddenly seemed immaterial, and I was seized by a burst of awe. Stretching before me were rows of pews of deep, dark polished wood that culminated in a massive alcove at the front of the hall, from which gazed the likenesses of various saints from within altars or the fronts of stained-glass windows. There were no services or Mass at the time I arrived, but instead quiet human activity bubbled from a group of church members putting up wreaths next to the windows. A solitary man knelt before a small golden side altar, silently crossing himself. Gingerly, I walked down the length of hall, fearful to touch anything or to go too near the icons of the Virgin Mary nearer the front. Though dark rain clouds were gathering outside the church, the area felt suffused with a regal levity. Perhaps it was the tall domed ceiling, or the flowing intricate architecture adorning the windows, or the images of saints that appeared to peer down on worshippers from their perches in nooks set within the pillars. In spite of myself, I felt a massive sense of reverence.

Later that day I was warned by a gruff caretaker not to ‘take too many photos’, and my own timidity has also made me refrain from taking as many as I’d normally have liked. Part of me was bursting with questions – about the architecture, the history of the church, and the people that still fill its halls now and then. But the dignity of the building arrested me; a dignity untarnished by its location just a stone’s throw away from a cluster of bustling shopping malls. For now, I will be content to sit and look around me, breathing in the dust of history and enjoying its quiet nobility.

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A section from a marble plaque containing the names of successive Bishops of Macau. The church had been established by the Portugese Mission two centuries ago, and continues to maintain its historic ties with the local Portugese Eurasian community.

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The right wall of the inner sancutary. Hanging over the embroidered red wall hangings are framed engravings of various scenes from the New Testament.

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A close-up of one of the engravings, depicting the moment when Jesus was forced to carry his own cross to the execution grounds.

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The stained-glass designs overlooking the entranceway from which I came.

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A close-up of the floor tiles.

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Another marble plaque, in Portugese, commemorating the priests behind the church’s early construction.

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A close-up of the top of a wall pillar.

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The front of the sanctuary.

Christmas, and Ghosts of the Past

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This year, my family decided to stage an old-school Christmas party. My mother dug out the 20-year-old bottles of Coke she’d tucked away in cold storage (yes, the Coke had been in the bottles that long). My sister bought some tiffin carriers – traditionally used to carry and store food for picnics – home from Thailand, laying them next to our old and slightly greyed blue-and-white porcelain rice bowls. We went out buying haw flakes, iced gems, White Rabbit candy, and ice pops (segmented plastic tubes filled with flavoured ice); all popular retro snacks in Singapore, topped off with a small pack of sour dried plums which are a mainstay of so many traditional candy stores.

As we were decorating, it occurred to me that I hadn’t known of many other peoples who cherish the past with as much vigour as Singaporeans. The Christmas party theme was a blast, mainly for the fact that it provided the adults with a much-adored blast from the past. There are even some of the young (myself included) who lament the passing of old sights and tastes from the past half-century, attesting to the breakneck pace of development, which has benefitted our country and also left it with a craving for simpler times past. Everywhere, nostalgia appears to be a prime sticking point in local discourse, even more so than in other developed countries. It explains the main thrust of marketing strategies for food outlet chains and tourist attractions, the proliferation of shops selling 1950s-Singapore-themed merchandise, and the fondness with which locals search out the shops selling their favourite pig’s ear biscuits or tutu kueh before they vanish forever.

Am I clinging on to the past too much sometimes, I wonder. And yet, there is a charm and a beauty to things from the past that can’t seem to be replicated by their modern counterparts. Perhaps it was their origin in an era where we all had more time to stop and smell the roses. But for now I shall continue to search down and honour the fast-vanishing landmarks, traditions and material culture of this island. Even if they don’t appear to be as relevant to our collective urban consciousness today, they can still provide a crystallised window into a remarkably different side of the island.

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A Mason jar filled with White Rabbit milk candy: a sweet milk-flavoured treat wrapped in a layer of edible rice paper and then in its characteristic plastic outer covering. Behind it is a jar of iced gems, which are small round biscuits each topped with a streak of coloured sugar.

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Another jar of haw flakes – little round discs made out of dried hawthorn fruit.

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An assortment of different types of tiffin carriers. The tall one in the middle was used as a thermos, while the red and green ones to the right are layered with different circular compartments for food.

Conversations with a Tissue Paper Seller 2

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Lately, every time I walk down the covered walkway leading from Buona Vista MRT Station to The Star Vista, I see an old woman sitting against a pillar. In the heat of the day she sits out in the open, flanked by the footfall of passers-by on one side and the dust stirred up by flocks of pigeons on the other. She was another of the itinerant tissue-paper sellers so often seen in Singapore’s crowded spaces, attempting to eke out a living by selling meagre packs of tissues to largely oblivious commuters. I had passed her by many times on my way home. This Christmas, I decided I could ignore her no longer.

I set out for the supermarket, feverishly combing the shelves for something she might need. I ended up purchasing a bunch of bananas, a pack of Milo, and two bottles of water–things that I hoped would make her stay out under the afternoon sun at least a little more bearable. Gingerly, I approached her usual seat, marked by a red place mat and a wicker basket filled with packets of tissue paper. Would she reject my gift? What would she think of my decision to do this? Was I even doing the right thing?

She was eating out of a styrofoam packet of mixed rice with vegetables when I saw her, and had a plastic cup of coffee at her feet. At least she was eating well, I thought with relief. She was also talking to a younger woman I didn’t recognise–a welcome respite from the hours of boredom she must have faced everyday. Swallowing, I presented the shopping bags to her, sheepishly explaining that I felt bad for seeing her sitting out in the heat all day. I didn’t feel it was enough to explain my sudden burst of charity, but it was worth a try. Unexpectedly, my gift was met with another. “Aiyoh, you’re so considerate!” both women exclaimed in Mandarin, and the elderly lady pressed something into my hands. It was a cardboard bookmark wrapped in transparent plastic, with ‘Great is God’s Love For Us.’ piped onto the surface in orange and green fluid.

Feeling that it would be inappropriate to dash off right after presenting my gift, and curious about their chance encounter, I stayed behind to talk to them. Despite the vicissitudes they must have been confronted with, both women constantly had radiant smiles on their faces, punctuating their conversations with enthusiastic acknowledgments of God’s blessings in their lives. At one point, another woman walked by and handed the elderly woman some money. “God Bless You!” she exclaimed loudly in English, cheerfully handing her another bookmark from the thick brown sheaf packed next to her packets of tissue. And though the younger woman spoke at a faster, more staccato pace than the deliberate speech of her elderly companion, both of them spoke with a simple, unadultered happiness. What said they said to me is translated directly from Mandarin.

“I’m from SBC at Redhill. Aunty (referring to the old lady) worships at the church here (Star Vista). I happened to come here and both of us believe in God, so we just started talking. I’m originally from Malaysia, you know! I have three children. The oldest is 20 years old, only 2 years older than you. He’s studying in ITE and also works repairing air-conditioners, he got a 2.9 G… G whatever you call it, so he’s deciding whether to stay back or to just go to the army. The second is 18 and the third is 15, all studying here. The eldest and the youngest are also Christian, and their father told them, ‘If you want to be Christians, don’t come into my house.’ But I told them, ‘Don’t worry! Leave your worries to God.’ I can’t read very well, so when I read the Bible I’m very slow; I listen to an audiobook. You know, my child’s boyfriend’s cousin, he went to Malacca and a car ran over him. We had to go to the hospital to get him a new leg. We thought he wouldn’t make it, but praise God, the flesh began to grow around the metal they put in during the surgery! You speak English or Chinese? In English my name is Kristina, with a ‘K’. In Chinese, you can just call me Lizhen.”

“Just call me Po-po (婆婆, ‘grandma’ in Mandarin); will do. I used to sell tissue papers somewhere else, but since I came here I’ve been able to sell tissue papers for a long time. I have a sick husband at home, so I have to go out and support him. I got to know Jesus several decades ago, but only really accepted him six years ago. I used to bring my Bible with me when I went out, but it was too heavy so I decided not to bring it anymore. If not, I could read it while I’m here selling tissue paper. These bookmarks were made by a good friend of mine to give out, so just take one! Aunty knows so many young boys and girls; I cannot remember all their names. You’ve seen me here for so many weeks and you only come and talk to me now? Why did you spend so much on me when you’re not working yet?”

In this season of giving, it can sometimes be hard to remember that those we perceive we’re benefiting may help us more than we help them. There are some who believe that many of these tissue-paper-sellers are simply trying to play off people’s sympathies without having to work at a proper job. But the simple joy and contentedness these two women shared with me despite their circumstances was something that sincerely touched me. I walked away that afternoon with a renewed appreciation of the little kindnesses that can light up our individual journeys through life.

Christmas at the SOSD Adoption Drive

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The spirit of giving extends not just to fellow humans, but also our four-legged friends. This was evidenced by the huge crowd that had gathered outside Paya Lebar Square on Sunday afternoon, all there to offer various forms of support to dogs still waiting for a home of their very own. There were dogs in brown, beige and black; feisty or greedy or shy; but what all of them needed that day was a chance at a new life.

Not a single dog I saw was lacking any measure of human attention. Even before I saw any dogs, I saw their supporters, bristling in a huge crowd at an open courtyard outside Paya Lebar Square. Each potential adoptee from Save our Street Dogs Singapore (SOSD) had a circle of volunteers, supporters, and potential adopters around them. Hands reached out to pet them, fingers extended dog treats, and voices were raised to praise them–or, in rare cases, issue warning shouts when any of the dogs got out of line. “They get very excited because there’s a lot of dogs and people around,” a volunteer confessed breathlessly, after having to break up a pair of puppies who had tried to snap at each other.

Everywhere, dogs were straining at their leashes, playfully nipping at fingers, jumping onto people, yapping at other dogs or jostling with them for crumbs. Yet in spite of the chaos and stress of having to deal with the large crowds, the shelter volunteers never seemed to skip a beat. Every sudden disturbance was met with a patient smile and a calm explanation, and in their tolerance it was easy to see the devotion they had towards the animals they were trying to save. Many of them talked as fondly of the dogs as if they were speaking about their own children. “They’re all very pretty. They’re all very cute. They’re all very smart. The boys are just big, big, dumb,” quipped one volunteer good-naturedly about the female puppies. Amid the good humour and laughter were more strident, deeper declarations of dog–an impulsive hug or a kiss from person to pooch, or a verbal testament to their hope for these canines’ new lives. “I heard the black dogs are the most unadoptable,” stated a lady who was looking for a dark-furred dog. “I think they should make all HDB owners have a dog. That would solve the problem,” she added firmly, referring to the spectre of homelessness that continues to plague many strays on the island today.

There were far too many dogs for me to learn about in that one afternoon. But I have tried to tease out the unique backgrounds of each dog I attempted to get to know. Animals cannot speak as we do, and it is up to their personalities and backgrounds–as well as the people who have worked with them, of course–to tell their story. Hopefully through this they and their furry friends may be able to reach out, too, to someone who might be able to change their fate for the better.

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Fides (1.5 years old)

“We found him at Jurong Island. He has white hairs and also a white spot on his chest. He has two or three other siblings, but he’s the only one here. We have 50 dogs here, and our shelter can hold up to about 80.”

“He eats a lot, but he’s very strong!”

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Baba (5.5 months old)

“Oh, he just wants to play with the other dogs. He was found on Jurong Island. We use a metal leash because he kept biting the plastic ones. He had a yeast infection, so we had to shave his tail to make it easier to apply the cream. He has another sister named Nana who’s also here.”

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Falco (3.5 months)

“We don’t ask where they come from, because they’re for a new beginning. It’s another team that brings them in. He actually has another sister somewhere around here–yes, a lot of them are related. He’s quite big already; not HDB-approved. Waah, he’s so greedy.”

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Hector (3.5 months old)

“The bare patches are the result of a skin condition. He’s on a normal diet, but I think it’s allergies caused from eating grass and things like these.”

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Haely (3.5 months old)

“She’s actually not this calm most of the time. Usually she’s also very active. She’s not trained yet because she’s just arrived at the shelter; about a month ago.”

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Kyoto (5.5 months old)

“Oh yeah, there are a lot of other ‘K’s too. We have a Kobe, a Katy… I think we’re going to run out of the thesaurus soon! Usually the people who find them get to name them. Yeah, he’s very playful. At least he’s food-motivated, so he’s easy to train.”

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Scooby (2 years old)

“He’s not for adoption. We brought our dog here because we were here to collect something from the SOSD booth. He’s a stray but his legs are naturally like that; his mother was shorter actually. He can run around normally because he’s born with it, so he’s used to it.”

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Bibi (4.5 months old)

“She was found on a nature reserve on Jurong–I think it was Sungei something, can’t remember. Her siblings are with another welfare group because the officers took pity on them and called the group. Another guy found her and contacted SOSD. I’m actually a fosterer; I have her and another dog. She’s trained on a pee pad, but likes to go on the grass. This one, she’s very greedy. She’s a chi huo (Mandarin for ‘foodie’)!”

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Hannah (3 years old) 

“I’m the volunteer; those two are her owners. We found her when she was one-and-a-half years old, in a factory. They had no parents; they were just running around. I wish I had pictures from back then but I don’t! Her coat is very wiry, isn’t it. Sometimes, you just need to come here for some puppy therapy.”

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Dawn (1.5 years old)

“Her tail is between her legs all the time because she’s scared. Since there’s a lot of dogs and a lot of people here and she doesn’t like crowded places. It used to be worse; last time she would go hide in a corner. With other dogs she’s okay, but she takes a bit of time to warm up. Her siblings are all like her: shy, and they have the long body. She was found at a factory at Pasir Ris, actually, with four or five other siblings. This is our biggest adoption drive because it’s Christmas, and it’s the last one of the year. There are a lot of dogs we have here who still need a home. Oh, uh, you can touch her from the front. She gets nervous when you touch her from the back.”

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Griffin (7.5 months old)

“He’s… a very unique dog. He can be very sweet, and very energetic. I ran 37 k with him yesterday. Normally we run 15 kilometres a day. He needs someone willing to exercise with him.  He will go chase birds, and play with the dogs he’s familiar with. He’ll wake me up at 4.30 in the morning, and we go running at 5. He doesn’t open up easily to strangers and doesn’t like to be petted, but he will play with the other dogs that he knows around here. He doesn’t like to be in areas with a lot of other people and dogs, but he’s observing them. He and his siblings were found in a drain at Paya Lebar, all covered in mud. He squats the same way he did as a puppy. His two other siblings were more charming, so they got adopted before him. I raised him from when he was this small until now. Like I said, he’s very sweet, and he can be very energetic.”

On Cultural Tolerance

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A statue of Tudigong (土地公) sits overlooking the Ghim Moh Food Centre and Wholesale Market. Here he is known by his more formal title of ‘Just God of Prosperity and Virtue’ (福德正神) and wears a traditional governor’s hat, on top of a flowing yellow cape–with yellow being both the colour of royalty as well as of the element of Earth. In an area belonging to small-business-owners and dealers in fresh produce, he was appropriately chosen for his association with financial and agricultural success. Throughout the day he is visited mostly by the elderly, who will offer him a few sticks of incense before going on their way, while he continues to smile and preside over the daily activities of all those hard at work.

One morning, a group of kindergarteners–from a nearby international school, judging from their uniforms–with their parents and teachers in tow approached the altar. The children gleefully posed, grinning, in front of the statue while the adults took pictures. This spectacle was made more jarring by the arrival of a devotee, who as a result became part of the attraction as they continued snapping photos whilst she was praying. Immediately, I felt repulsed. It just seemed degrading to me, even if they didn’t practice the Chinese folk religion the deity belonged to. By treating the altar as a piece of scenery for a good photo-op, they were violating the sanctity of that space and the revered tradition that it represented to the scores of devotees who visited it everyday.

The same reaction comes upon me when I see Buddha heads being sold as house ornaments in interior decorating shops. It might be tantalising for some observers to market or trivialise such images as exotic curiosities, while ignoring the centuries of religious and cultural significance that underpin such depictions. There is a line that must be drawn between appreciation and disrespect, and all too often it is easily ignored for the sake of amusement.

Old Cucumber Soup

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After a good amount of pestering, my mother finally agreed to make old cucumber soup. Each individual variety of soup had its merits–there was the grainy sweetness of lotus root soup, and the surprising meaty undertones of her carrot-corn-potato soup (which she nicknamed ‘ABC soup’ for a reason I never quite understood). Lately, however, I had a craving for a robust bowl of old cucumber soup, and found ourselves back in Ghim Moh for a reliable source of the key ingredients needed for a good pot of soup.

My mother’s Cantonese-style soups held another special place in my heart, next to her near-legendary seafood porridge. Each pot of soup, however, was a complex undertaking. Pork ribs and water were left to simmer in a heavy iron pot with wolfberries, dried scallops, pieces of carrot and thick slices of ‘old’ cucumber for hours to result in a thin brown broth. The ‘old’ cucumber refers to the matured version of the more-familiar zucchini, and bears a larger resemblance to a squash with its larger size and leathery, deep brown skin. Unable to find this at regular supermarkets, we returned to Lim Sim Ann’s vegetable stall at the Ghim Moh wet market, where my mother was always guaranteed a warm reception and an easy pick of the choicest vegetables on offer.

Mr Lim’s stall was tucked deep into the market’s vegetable stalls block, behind rows of stalls displaying fresh fish on glittering crushed-ice beds and fluorescent red butchers’ counters. On any regular morning, a group of discerning housewives could be seen scanning the rows of vegetables arranged in styrofoam boxes at the storefront. After they had placed their purchase in circular plastic baskets provided by the stall, they would pass them to Sim Ann, who would bundle them onto a well-worn weighing scale and mutter aloud weight-to-price calculations in rapid-fire Hokkien. (He always managed to do this accurately without a calculator.) The goods would then be stuffed into identical red plastic bags and the transaction completed, the customer vanishing into the bustling crowd of other shoppers at the wet market. He was the eldest of three brothers, all with curiously feminine names (‘Sim Ann’ is more stereotypically a Chinese girls’ name and again, this trend was something I never comprehended). While the second brother was no longer working at the stall after some personal disagreements, his youngest brother Hua San worked as a bus driver and occassionally helped out. Hua San had been the driver of the school bus I rode when I was in primary school, and as a result of this association Sim Ann and I would exchange friendly quips if I happened to pass him on my way through the market.

“Morning,” he shouted over the crowd to my mother, leaving off packing bittergourds for another lady to serve us first. She smirked at the special treatment, before we turned our attention to the wares before us. Besides many of the common vegetables that could be found at other urban retailers, the wet market offered many lesser-known varieties that were nevertheless indispensable to local cooking. Notable among these is the notorious knobbly-green bittergourd, which is cut into flowery-looking slices and added to fish soups or stir-fried with meat or eggs. My mother deftly picked out broccoli, cauliflower, shiitake mushrooms and kai lan (a dark green leafy vegetable) for future meals, with input from Hua San after she told him of her specific culinary needs. However, it was the dark tips of the old cucumber poking out from our shopping bags that excited me the most, and I spent the walk back anticipating the aromas that would emanate from the kitchen come lunchtime.

Regrettably, I’d forgotten to take pictures of the resulting soup before it vanished down my stomach. The ingredients and preparation that had gone into the soup, I’d realised, were sourced from a greater cultural tradition that was responsible for adding such colour to our culinary landscape. Even if the supermarkets one day were to stock all of the wet market’s unique fruits and vegetables, their distinctive atmosphere, with hand-written styrofoam signs poking out amid a jumble of plastic and a cacophony of friendly banter between customer and stall-owner, would be hard to recreate. The vanishing of traditional wet markets in the future would be a great pity, and Hua San would indirectly be one of the last purveyors of a mundane, but necessary tradition.

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Lim Hua San is the man in the dark singlet with his back facing the camera.

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A sample of the produce found at Hua San’s stall. In anti-clockwise order: yams, wintermelon, taro, gourds, turnips, cassava and water caltrops.

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A display of pomelos, a fruit traditionally consumed for the Chinese New Year, at another fruit stall.

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Signs advertising water spinach, more popularly known by its Malay name ‘kangkong’ and often eaten stir-fried with spicy prawn paste in the ubiquitous dish named sambal kangkong.

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Sliced old cucumber ready for soup.

 

A Glimpse of St. Joseph’s Church

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On my way out from the Central Library, I’d always noticed the spires of a cathedral rise up amid the familiar jumble of other urban buildings, interjecting the sky-scape with its curious domed spires. Unable to restrain my curiosity any further, I decided to go across the road to take a look. Though its entrance was hidden from road level by a thicket of bushes, its ornate facade looked even more impressive from close-up, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of history I discovered behinds its gates.

St. Joseph’s Church, I discovered, had been a bastion of the Portugese Eurasian community since the early 20th century. The community resulted from the inter-marriage of Portugese colonisers with indigenous women in Malacca during the 16th and 17th centuries, and like many other Eurasians retained some aspects of the culture of their European forbears, including their religion. The church’s adjoining parish house, which was constructed with aid by a Bishop of Macau named Joao Paulino d’Azevedo e Castro, is itself just one of the many pieces of evidence showing the ties the community maintained with other members of the Portugese diaspora. The building of the church itself was completed by the Scottish architect David McLeod Craik in 1912, and the parish house was used as the headquarters for the Portugese Mission shortly after.

Besides its religious uses, being the official residence of the Bishop of Macau on his visits to the island, the parish house became a centrepiece of the social and cultural life of its congregation. The ground floor was used as a meeting area, and hosted many a church reunion dinner. The parish canteen was opened to devotees in 1960, and hosted its first wedding just five years later. In addition, the parish house library was an important gathering area for the Patrician Movement, a branch of the Legion of Mary which consisted of lay volunteers for the Roman Catholic Church. While two priests still live in the building today, the austere quiet that lay over the church buildings did hardly else to betray their rich legacy.

The most visible reminder of the building’s Portugese roots still lay in its exterior. The cathedral itself was a fine piece of Baroque architecture, with its tall grey ceiling frescoes and imposing central spire giving it a regal air and harking back to the eminence of the architectural form in Portugal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The spires were supported by fluted Gothic arches and pinnacles, another reminder of the dominant European styles of architecture at the time of its construction. The faded baby blue that trimmed its ceilings would also called to mind the distinctive Portugese Azulejo tiles that the church is known for. A sign outside the cathedral mentioned worship services for Our Lady of Fatima, further cementing the visceral spiritual connection this community held with the Iberian Peninsula.

While I was unable to view the interior of the cathedral on my visit, I was nevertheless captivated by what I already saw before me. I had to take a moment to crane my neck up towards the domed spires, conscious of how they dwarfed me, and let the weight of its rich background and significance settle over me as the setting sun drew its shadow across the concrete.

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A close-up of the arch over the main entrance to the cathedral, showing St. Joseph and different depictions of John the Apostle.

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A close-up of the top of one of the pinnacles below the central spire, decorated with Acanthus motifs.

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The side of the main entranceway, with the edges adorned with fern motifs.

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One of the side doors to the cathedral, showing a glimpse of stained-glass windows.

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A close-up of the top of one of the ancillary domes, showing window grilles.

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A close-up of a ceiling fresco.

 

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A glazed tile painting depicting the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus.

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The side of the parish house.

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An ornate awning window at the parish house.

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Close-ups of the pillars outside the front of the parish house.

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Leaf motifs at the foot of a pinnacle at the parish house.