Archive | January 2017

Two Generations of Perfection

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A jar of kok zai.

Every Chinese New Year, my mother will transform the house into a pastry factory. Plastic boxes of deep orange pineapple paste would line the shelves of the fridge, stacked high in preparation to be turned into thousands of pineapple tarts. For afternoons on end, she would sit in the living room over trays of shortcrust dough, meticulously wrapping them over the pineapple paste into little balls to be coated with brushstrokes of egg yolk. One of the things that excites me about Chinese New Year is the array of special foods that only appear at this time of year, and my mother is one of the few that still keep alive the practice of making their own New Year treats from scratch.

Now, it’s easy to find racks of kueh bangkit (crumbly flower-shaped coconut biscuits), kueh bahulu (oblong fluffy golden-brown cakes) and tiny sugee cakes in any local supermarket leading up to the occassion. However, there was a time when these special goodies were mostly produced by individuals and given out to loved ones. My father recounts a time when his family used to make their own ‘love letters’ – thin egg rolls curled into slender tubes – as a family operation, with brothers and cousins involved in specific steps of the process. “When I got old enough, I was upgraded from mould-pressing to rolling,” he’d once proudly told us, referring to the different stages of production when the batter is poured into a hot iron mould to solidify before being rolled into its characteristic shape. The direct precursor to my mother’s own baking tradition, though, would have to be the far more painstaking process my grandmother used to go through to make kok zai every year.

“Ah Ma used to make them to give to people,” she had explained. A New Year snack that is a signature of the Cantonese community, kok zai are puff pastries that vaguely resemble curry puffs but are filled with candied peanuts instead. I have never tried them due to my allergies, but I found them tempting regardless. “Last time me, Aunt Anne, Aunt Eileen and Ah Ma used to make it together. Ah Ma would scold all of us for not folding it properly, because then the dough will come apart when you fry it. The peanuts will float to the surface, and you know when you burn sugar it becomes black, so the kok zai will also end up having black spots.”

“Aunt Anne used to be in charge of rolling the dough. She used to roll it until her arms ache like crazy. At the time we had no roller, so you know what we use? Glass bottle. We didn’t have a food processor back then so we just use all these things lying around the house. We would roll and roll and roll. Then we had to cut the dough out; didn’t have cookie cutters so we used glass cups to make circular shapes. Then we would peel the groundnut and blow the shell off while Ah Ma mixed the dough. No mixer, so she used her hands as the mixer. She’ll add flour, eggs, something-else-I-don’t-know, and mix the dough like she was washing clothes. It’s very thick so she had to pull very hard. Then after that, Ah Ma would fry everything. It’s very tasty, because the peanuts have a nice smell when you fry them, plus the sugar makes it so fragrant.”

Thankfully, the advent of kitchen technology has made the process of baking New Year treats a lot less arduous. Nevertheless, my mother still insists on making her own pineapple paste, and she would sit on the kitchen floor with a massive cleaver to skin fresh pineapples. Occassionally they would result in nasty cuts, but more often in hours of hard work and waves of exhaustion. She would rarely allow me to help her with rolling the dough for the tarts, because every tart has to be exactly the same size and shape. Having vastly expanded her baking repertoire to include cakes, jellies, macarons and even fondant art, her efforts have only multiplied as she applies the same rigour to various other kinds of food. This year, she has made four massive carp out of coconut jelly. Each one of them is coloured with different shades of orange to make it look three-dimensional and strips of coconut flesh set in patterns within its body.

The types of snacks my family bakes have changed with time. My grandmother stopped making her own kok zai after my grandfather’s death four decades ago, and there might be a time when my mother will stop making her own tarts too. But what has, and will continue to remain, a time-honoured tradition will be that of perfection. My mother applies the same merciless precision to the shape of her tarts as my grandmother did to the folds of each of her puff pastries. And it is a mercilessness born for the love of the craft, of tradition, and of the friends and family whose stomachs these treats would go on to warm.

I doubt I will ever be able to bake half as well as my mother or grandmother. My fingers are far too clumsy for the dextrous cuts my mother makes in each lump of pastry that she will turn into lively hedeghog-shaped tarts. Neither are they nimble enough to make the miniscule, neat, regular folds that characterise my grandmother’s kok zai. Yet it is my aim to preserve these practices however I can. Whatever my expression of ‘perfection’ will be, I hope that one day I will be carry on the spirit in which these pastries will painfully and lovingly made.

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After the Rain

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The series of torrential downpours the island has been receiving has, unexpectedly, brought a burst of colour to my doorstep. I was alerted to this beautiful male brown-throated sunbird by a brilliant flash of iridescence from behind a window. He flitted away from a ginger blossom to land on the branches of a frangipani tree. As he leaned back to preen his tail feathers the light caught his brilliant head plumage – deep azure turquoise ending in a flourish of deep purple, contrasting perfectly his bright yellow belly and the leafy green of his surroundings. This was the first time I had been able to see the colour of its plumage in full view – perhaps the bird was my proverbial rainbow at the end of the storm.

For most of the past few days, the birds had ceased their cries as they were forced to take cover from the persistent rain. I would see a sodden myna crouch despondently under a shrub and staring out at the showers pounding upon the grass, or the silhouettes of sparrows winging desperately towards shelter. Without any access to brollies or raincoats, the birds are forced to cease their daily foraging and wait for the rain to stop, wasting what for many must be precious daylight hours. When left with little choice, some birds that normally keep a wide berth from humans will take cover near their settlements. I saw a pair of oriental magpie-robins sitting rather listlessly on a length of rope that happened to be dangling under the eaves of the roof. One of them was twittering repeatedly, as if anxiously wishing for the rain to let up.

Examining their plumage, I saw that they were of opposite genders – a couple, perhaps? I’m not sure if these birds are monogamous, but the way they idled in such close proximity to each other made me entertain the notions of their having travelled together, although magpie-robins only begin the courtship season in March. But what struck me was the chance I got to observe them in a closer way than I had ever done. There’s something odd about seeing animals that are normally so mobile and active sit still, engaged in no other act but the odd preening of their feathers. And yet it afforded me a rare chance to gain more than what are usually elusive glances of these pretty creatures.

The rain, despite having temporarily put a stop to the birds’ activities, was not without its perks. It’s well-known that earthworms and snails will emerge after wet weather, providing easy pickings for many a hungry beak. And the birds’ songs themselves are also signs of the end of another burst of inclement weather, as they are free to roam the skies again. Like the birds, perhaps we can let ourselves be assured of the better times that will lie at the end of any proverbial storm. And after the rain, another lesson that Nature can teach us is of how to seize the day – for oppurtunities, like worms for hungry birds, can pop up where you would least expect them.

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A female magpie-robin waiting amid some branches.

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Close-up of a male magpie-robin

Beats at The Beast

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Night seems to be the time when some people, like certain species of nocturnal wildlife, wake up and crawl out from within their shells. I found myself pounding down North Bridge Road as the late afternoon sunk into the pallid violet of evening. Rows of halal eateries gave way to kitschy cafés and galleries in narrow sidestreets, and then spread out to reveal a white square building surrounded by long wooden tables peopled with lively well-heeled millenials chatting over hand-made burgers and fries. I sat in the restaurant and watched as the fall of darkness intensified the amber glow of the woodwork and drew a new sort of crowd past its doors.

The Beast, sitting right across from the arty Aliwal Street, is one of the many establishments that had indirectly been fed by Singapore’s growing upper crust. It was made to resemble an all-American saloon with walls imitating wooden panelling, a bourbon bar stretching half the length of the restaurant, and wait staff in identical red flannel shirts. Before evening fell, the only other customers besides myself were an American family of three playing Uno over plates of fried chicken and a pair of British men talking in low voices. And at the end of the restaurant was a small stage with a microphone and a tiny speaker. I ordered a mac-and-cheese, sat down, and waited for night to fall.

A large man with a shaggy beard quietly stepped onto the stage. He slung his guitar across his shoulder and began to strum a few slow bars. “My name is Shaq,” he announced with a laconic drawl. “If any of you wanna play you can use my guitar. After I’m done usin’ it, of course. I’ll just keep playing songs until then, yeah.” His presence grew behind the mic. A strident voice echoed off the woodwork, playing soulful acoustic covers of pop songs ranging from Corrine Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl Put Your Records On’ to Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Everyone craned forward to listen and sway in time to the music. Shaq was quick to shrug off the waves of staccato applause that came with each song. “Please lah, I’m just playing music.” It was, as the regulars would later mention, ‘a quiet night’, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Immersed in his music, he continued playing to a tiny crowd, steeping the room in the poignant melancholy of his music.

As he played, more characters seemed to step into the restaurant, as if they had materialised from the thick of the night outside. A tall slender woman with a curly bob flounced in, followed by a man in a pastel blue dress shirt. While one of them sang along and whooped at Shaq’s playing, the other had a pen in hand and was busily sketching the musician’s face onto a brown napkin. “Oh are you alone?” she asked, sweeping me over to the high stools where they sat. They introduced themselves as Jocelyn and James – one, the organiser of the weekly open mics, and the other a friend who happened to be tagging along. “We do all sorts of crazy things!”  James exclaimed. “Jocelyn writes poetry and she will sing randomly on the street. She’s also a nurse. I like to sign up for different courses, like white-water rafting.” Looking at how free-spirited both seemed to be, the thought of their having mundane day jobs seemed almost incredulous. I felt like I was being ushered into another world: one darker, and more mysterious, than the one we roamed in during the day.

We stepped outside for Jocelyn to have a smoke. A solitary star twinkled above the roar of traffic along Victoria Street and the strobing city lights. “Jocelyn, that’s Venus, isn’t it,” James remarked, before introducing me to the other hidden constellations in the sky: Pisces and Altair were lurking, unseen. The same could be said of the deeper, more reflective sides of these bar-goers I met that night. Below is some of the conversation I had with James:

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Jocelyn and James

“I draw on napkins because I don’t bring my sketchbook with me everywhere. In my work there aren’t many opportunities to sit down and sketch. My job may sound interesting, but the pay is low. But it’s still enough to cover my bills, until I switch to my next job. On Fridays I like to go art jamming just across the street. You just go there to paint, and the proceeds go to some needy people. I forgot to get my brother a housewarming gift, so I painted him something. Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. Another, I would say, is Rene Magritte. He’s a French Surrealist artist. I don’t really follow certain artists, but look at the brushstrokes and the way they use colour. Drawing is just a hobby for me. You have to know when to keep your hobby separate from your job, otherwise it will consume you.”

“Jocelyn and I have been friends for eight years. We were in a musical together. I was her co-actor. I think it’s important to try out new things. Of course that doesn’t mean doing something like this,” and here he pointed to Jocelyn who had a plume of cigarette smoke wafting from her lips. “I get a different sort of high from rock-climbing. I’ve done six of the thirty-six things I have on my list. When I was younger I was afraid of trying new things, until one of my university lecturers used to reminds us, ‘Don’t try, don’t know. Don’t try, don’t know.’ During my university days I went on a trip to Hanoi. Then I went to Macau, and began skydiving in 2015. Jocelyn, you know I have a health condition that impedes my flexibility and physical movements. But I don’t let it stop me.”

“During N.S. I received many rejections by universities. Australian Royal University, they accepted me. Jocelyn was the valedictorian! I still remember her graduation speech: ‘The world is your oyster’. My advice I can give to you for life is: say as many ‘I love you’s as you want, hug as many people as you want, say as many ‘Thank you’s as you want. Just remember that if things don’t work out, always remember to let go.”

Sometimes, it appears that the privilege of unwinding that the night affords individuals can bring out the musicians and artists that lie dormant in them, yearning to be expressed. I looked at James’ napkin drawings and the little notebook – ‘an existentialist’s guide to the universe’ – that Jocelyn had left on the table in front of her. During the clamour of their day jobs, these would be dismissed as nothing more than curiosities. Now, however, they sat as intriguing symbols of the inner lives of their owners. But as I walked away from the restaurant into the flooding light of the streetlamps, I could feel the memories of the night slip away – for I seemed to be slipping between worlds.

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Shaq with his guitar. “This is my only regular venue. I’ve been doing this for three years, since I was in army.”

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A Chinatown Market By Day

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Despite their transient nature, festive bazaars of any sort can always be distinguished every year by their unconscious regularity. There are the same stands of pussy willows, dyed in all sorts of colours, sitting behind pots of spiral-shaped bamboo coils and cut peach and plum tree branches. There is the same roasted-chestnut vendor standing before his glass-panelled roaster, sending the faint aroma of coffee wafting through the crowd. There are the same intricate red paper cuttings of auspicious Chinese characters, the same fabric plushies of zodiac animals, the same snaking queues for sweetmeats (better known by its Hokkien name bak kwa).

And then there are the details that you notice only after having regularly set foot along the same streets at the same time of year. Along Sago Street this afternoon, I witnessed the vendors kick into high gear at an unexpected visit. “The health department is here,” one old woman hollered, as men bustled out from behind their storefronts to take down the rope that they had used to extend the roof shelters over their stalls. I saw a woman peek out from under a massive blue tarp that had been pulled down from the eaves, iPhone pressed to ear as she kept watch down the street. I’d also begun noticing the gaggles of teenage students on school excursions traipsing behind teachers and tour guides. “I’m going to scare him to death,” one boy chuckled mischievously in Mandarin as he waved a wooden snake in a plastic bag. And then there were the tour groups: American, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, standing out with their orderly clustering compared to the stream of local pedestrians who thread down the busy lanes with a single-minded focus.

It never gets old to me. Chinese New Year has always been one of the most special times of the year to me. Even as a young adult, I always find a certain childish glee in surveying rows of deep brown niangao at the Tai Chong Kok bakery, or going to the same Indonesian bamboo cake vendor year after year to enjoy the fluffy white rice flour tubes stuffed with warm palm sugar and buried in sweet coconut flakes and orange sugar. Like what Christmas does to many in other corners of the world, the colours and music and lively bustle that Chinese New Year brings to Singapore always excites me. And the riotous energy (and, sometimes, idiosyncrasies) of the Chinatown bazaars never fails to remind me of that.

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One of the many stalls selling Taiwanese fruit jellies. I’ve noticed that many of them seem to be manned by vigorous-looking young men.

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The fire truck that had earlier caused a commotion among the vendors.

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A selection of dried fruit slices, often given out as candy at festive tables.

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A stall selling ‘bird’s nest water’, an iced drink made with fragments of the nest of edible-nest swiftlets. Bird’s nest is widely consumed as a tonic among the Chinese community.

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The stall from which we get our favourite Indonesian bamboo cakes.

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Rows of niangao at Tai Chong Kok’s Chinatown premises. As the words for ‘sticky’ (referring to the cake’s texture, being made of glutinous rice) and ‘year’ are homophones in Chinese, these cakes are eaten during the New Year to represent a wish for a fortunate year ahead.

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Serving.

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“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”

A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”

The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”

The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.

What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.

Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.

After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.

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Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.

Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.

One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.

In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.

We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.

If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.

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Packing.

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“This kitchen is open 365 days a year. Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Christmas. We don’t stop.”

There was no other introduction needed for the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen. Behind its pastel yellow facade and small strips of grassy lawn dotted with colourful garden gnomes was a storm of heat and movement. A tall man in an apron shoveled away at a wok the width of a bathtub, stirring at a morass of bell peppers, long beans and tomatoes. Volunteers moved from one end of the metallic grey kitchen to the other, supporting large trays of fried mackerel and vegetable stir-fries. And at every table were more volunteers in hair nets and plastic gloves. Scooping rice into styrofoam trays, ladling on vegetables, and topping on fried fish before each box was squeezed with tens of others in tightly-tied red plastic bags. “Another 1000!” came the occassional cry. It was not at all a startling number in these kitchens. The daily order for lunch and dinner each was 5000 boxes of packed food. No one stopped unless the ingredients in front of them had run out. Just as soon as the remnants of food in the previous trays had been scraped out with ladles and new trays were brought piping hot onto the tables, work began again.

Willing Hearts is just one of the many organisations throughout the island dedicated to alleviate the suffering of the city’s poor and hungry. And yet there was never a moment where help was not needed somewhere in the kitchens. Besides the assembly area, the soup kitchen sported an open-air food preparation area, a small herb garden and even carried out daily deliveries of food to communities all across Singapore. There were even less people on the weekdays – retirees, people between jobs, the odd school excursion group. I plunged in.

It can be easy to forget the real significance of what you were doing there when you settle into the rhythmn of work. There are some who volunteer there because the work is relatively straightforward, even enjoyable (as many of the housewives at the preparation area would attest). To an extent, volunteering at a soup kitchen is seen as a standard way to ‘fulfil service hours’ by many school clubs and corporate groups. But the grittiness of standing in an assembly line, shovelling cabbage and lotus root slices onto a bed of rice for three and a half hours on my feet non-stop, touched me. This was how much work went into providing for the less fortunate around us.

A middle-aged woman suddenly stopped two of us from adding some blanched bok choy into the boxes. “I think you cannot use this, it’s not properly cooked,” she explained. “Not good for the old people. I once followed them on distribution; we went to the flats at Clementi to deliver food to families. There were so many people, I think almost 300!” As the vegetables were being replaced, the volunteers in the line stood around, restlessly waiting. “We slowed down,” exclaimed one. No one thought solely of the 1000 boxes we had to prepare at each go. Everyone was thinking of the people this food would be going to – and how they would have to wait if we didn’t fill the boxes in time.

And yet, over the long hours and risk of exhaustion, there were still moments for a little light-heartedness. “Oh, I hate this song,” a lady in glasses exclaimed, rolling her eyes as ‘If I Die Young’ came over the radio. “I’m like those grandmothers who wants everyone to eat more,” explained another with serious meticulousness as she spooned an extra helping of long beans onto the boxes laid out in front of her. The older volunteers smiled and laughed, finding time to clap each other on the back or swap a friendly ribbing as they bustled between the kitchens and the driveway. Not long into the shift, everybody was already talking to everybody else. Though the exact reasons each volunteer had for coming here was different, all of us wanted to be able to help out in any way we could.

Noon struck. “You ladies can start clearing up this table,” a small wiry man called out. Four hours and countless boxes of rice later, we had finally finished the lunch order. Relief rippled through the assembly line. It was only then that I noticed how sore my limbs felt. We had all been swept up in a collective atmosphere of hard work – a labour of love for everyone whose stomachs we might be able to help to fill.

I dragged my weary bones to the dining area. Small metal dishes and utensils had been prepared for the volunteers to enjoy a free lunch using the leftover food from whatever had been prepared that day. Others sat around me: giving thanks, eating in quiet meditation, or talking in low voices over coffee. I smiled and nodded at them – it was a camaraderie borne of service. The food was itself nothing fanciful or extraordinary. And yet I found myself craving it. And I felt the heart and soul that had gone into every grain of rice.

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Celebrating Surya Pongal

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Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.

Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.

Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.

More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.

Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.

Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.

The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.

Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.

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Mr Manoj kindling the fire.

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A ripened banana folded with a sugarcane leaf in a coconut shell, one of the two halves placed against the corners of the sugarcane structure representing the fruits of farm labour.

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The charred remains of the orange hard candy that had been burnt as an offering.

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Arranging the food offerings on a banana leaf.

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Raucous clapping to the Pongal music.

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Musicians on the nadaswaram flute and dholak drum.

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A girl carrying a beaker from which guests would pour milk into the steel pot.

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The milk being put to boil.

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Thoughts on The City Book

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Picture credits: Source

As long as there has been a contemporary art scene, artists have attempted to use their craft to make sense of their belonging to a community. The City Book is another of those attempts to take a fresh spin on the decades-long issue of Singaporeans negotiating their identity to the city-state. Published by the local art design studio Production Q, it compiled the works of six artists using their respective media to relate the stories and ways they view this urban island. I went with a friend, who shall be referred to as V, to their opening reception at Robertson Quay, hoping to find out more about how others have also tried to explore what their city means to them.

We edged past throngs of well-heeled socialites in business suits and cocktail dresses to find a browsing copy of the book. We were almost embarrassingly out of place: a pair of teenagers attending what appeared to be a swanky reception in an avant-garde retail-art-food market, complete with waiters bearing trays of champagne and truffle mushroom toast. V and I sat on a pair of beige rattan high stools, thumbing through the pages while looking out over the Singapore River gleaming under the night lights. A symbol of the island’s lifeblood, juxtaposed against an artistic dedication to the lives that have gone on around it, mostly oblivious to its presence.

One thing that stood out to me from the art I found in the book was an undercurrent of absence. A selection of what was covered: overlooked urban spaces, the disconnectedness of people in proximity to each other, the reclaiming of the urban by natural forces. I was particularly struck by Zhao Renhui’s photographs highlighting the artifice of nature in urban Singapore, as well as Charles Lim’s pondering Singaporeans’ lack of connection to the sea despite being surrounded by the ocean. I, too, felt discomfited by how many locals seemed to concentrate their yearning for the past on the recently bygone, oblivious to the natural and cultural losses that also go on around us. It seemed like the way these artists had chosen to frame their personal journeys was through looking back, through loss. It was something I found myself unconsciously relating to.

“It isn’t anything new,” V remarked. We had gone a quarter of the way into the book. “It’s just a different way of expressing what we already feel.” Several of the artists had stated they weren’t doing what they did for sentiment or nostalgia – a disclaimer, of sorts. And yet, in spite of the book’s main purpose as an expression of their views on the city, what they pointed out couldn’t help but sting a little. It stung because of what it, like its literary predecessors, had subtly highlighted: a chronic dissatisfaction of the present generation with the state of our city. Perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that also spurs me, to an extent; maybe it’s also what drives me to look towards and glorify the past.

I looked behind through the window-panes at the people inside. How many of them understood the book and its artworks beyond its abstract aesthetic value? How many of them would seriously think about the themes it raised? How many of them would be able to contribute to a greater conversation that this book points towards, one where we as a nation can decide how we can truly belong?

V and I continued talking as we walked to the bus stop. We discussed Dawn Ng’s psychedelic compositions of typically mundane objects that could be found in households and provision stores. “I guess we’re privileged in that we’re able to distinguish the quotidian from an artistic standpoint,” he went on, “but I wonder if the people who actually use it would recognise it as the quotidian.”

And even if we recognise it as such – what then?

The search for, and celebration of, the quotidian is arguably another big driving force behind what I write about. It can easily be seen as a sort of quizzical, inane idealism. But I guess it is precisely the fact that I feel the everyday needs to be celebrated that points to a deeper, unspoken absence that many Singaporeans would feel – hence a common national attraction to nostalgia.

And yet, I hope that one day I’ll be able to find artists who don’t just mention the keen loss of the past, but also pride over the future. A piece of art that shows how we can celebrate our country holistically without mourning what we wanted to keep.

And I will be working towards that, too.

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In Little India Before Pongal

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The street view of a stall along Campbell Lane, with flower garlands danging from the ceiling and rows of metal pots used for making ghee.

While most of Singapore has been swept up in a holiday frenzy over Chinese New Year’s impending arrival, a different sort of frenzy has been bubbling in a small corner of Singapore. Another harvest festival, Pongal, was also approaching, anticipated by the majority of the island’s Tamil community. The Pongal lights had come up over Serangoon Road, looking over Little India’s main thoroughfare, and side-streets closed in preparation for the festivities. In the lull of a Sunday mid-afternoon, though, the lights were not yet lit, giving the streets over to throngs of tourists and visitors.

Along Hastings Road, a small enclosure had been set up to house the livestock who would be vindicated on the third day of Pongal, Maatu Pongal. On that day cattle, considered sacred animals in Hinduism, would be treated to a mixture of milk and fruits, but for now they would be shown off to crowds of curious onlookers. Dairy cattle and long-haired dwarf goats were tethered behind a metal fence mulling over buckets of hay at their audience, their horns painted in different colours as a preliminary symbol of their upcoming veneration. Among the onlookers there was a fascination tinged with reverence for the cow’s life-giving properties, and I wonder how the cattle must have felt about the sweet treats and special attention they would be receiving in just days to come.

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A dairy cow being displayed along Hastings Road.

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A traditional bullock cart displayed at the mouth of Hastings Road. Carts such as these were plowed by a pair of oxen yoked together and used for transport, even lending itself to Chinatown’s name (in Chinese, it literally translates to ‘bullock-cart-water’, referencing how the carts were once used to transport water to the area.)

I backed out of the street and moved further along to Campbell Lane. What interested me at that point were not the decorations put up for the festivities, however, but the signs of the bustle of daily life I spotted around me. Signboards for goldsmiths leapt out at me from among the rows of shops I walked past, emblazoned in flowing Tamil script or even in gilded Chinese characters from the different chains that had set up shop in this area. A shopping arcade peeked out from a zebra crossing, revealing a pair of men behind a glass counter filled with sandy-white halwa and golden-orange jaangiri. A vegetable stall sat just blocks away from a SIM card shop, giving way to fridges filled with soft drinks and racks of magazines printed in Tamil and Hindi.

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A fruit and vegetable stall along Campbell Lane.

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A sign in Tamil and English advertising a goldsmith. 

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Racks of Tamil magazines from a shop along Buffalo Lane.

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A kolam on the ground along Campbell Lane. Kolam are drawings done in rice and chalk for important Hindu festivals to usher in prosperity.

And then I noticed the streets were teeming with foreign construction workers. Many construction workers hail from southern India or Bangladesh, eking out a living doing back-breaking manual work under spartan living conditions in return for meager pay. Many of them go un-noticed, sometimes even vilified, by locals. Today was the only day in the week they had off work, and they looked significantly more relaxed in their plaid button-downs and T-shirts. A pair of men walked out of Tekka Centre, each toting a plastic takeaway cup of kalamansi juice and bantering with a relieved vigour. Lines of them snaked out from the back of the hawker centre, waiting for their turn to send money home to their families from the ATM. Men sprawled over the grass, sat together on ledges and talked quietly over cigarettes. I even saw them roaming around a playground. One man had a go at playing with the fitness equipment while his companions looked on, a shy smile crossing his face.

I began to feel distinctly out of place and yet, I was touched. It can be hard to identify with the people we perceive as below us as multi-faceted people, to think of them as having interests and aspirations of them. I felt like I had seen a more human side to these construction workers that day, one that cut through and defied the warnings I had heard from misguided stereotypes of their propensity for violence. I walked away that afternoon feeling like there was a group of people that appeared almost inaccessible to me, and whom I longed to be able to understand.

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Bangladeshi construction workers at a playground along Race Course Road.

 

The Curiosities of Mr Bian

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This expressive bamboo sculpture of the Chinese God of Wealth, dressed in a Qing dynasty official’s cap and magua jacket with an abacus under one arm, was one of the many wooden sculptures I found within the Singapore Chinese Opera Museum. The museum was tucked away in a tiny lot on the first floor of Sultan Plaza, and I had arrived hoping to learn more about traditional Chinese opera forms. Instead, the first thing that leapt out at me upon my arrival were the rows of wood sculptures neatly arranged on tables and shelves lining the premises. The heady smell of camphor incense wafted through the air, accompanied by the soft lilt of qin (zither) music playing over the sound system.

These sculptures were all part of the personal collection of Mr Bian Huibin, a soft-spoken man in his forties and the museum’s owner. I first saw him quietly drifting in and out of the museum, while his wife Mdm Huang Ping attended to a small steamer at a side table surrounded by bowls of rice and pickled vegetables for his lunch. “I looked for and imported these all myself,” he told me, speaking in Mandarin as he ushered me into the area, beaming with barely-concealed pride over each of his valuable pieces. “The middle row,” he said while pointing to a line of dark-coloured Guanyin sculptures in the centre of the room, “are from Indonesia, and the rest are from China. There’s one sculpture in the corner that’s about 200 years old, but the rest are fairly new.” He admitted that as a Chinese opera instructor he used the space to conduct classes on the weekends, but seemed to take an especial interest in these artefacts. When I asked them why he collected them, he told me with a simple sincerity, “I like them. I like all forms of art.”

As I surveyed each of the sculptures, Mr Bian followed me steadily, eager to share his knowledge of each of these pieces. Each of them had been carved in the likenesses of various Chinese religious or historical figures, infused by the artist with a startling liveliness in their vivid expressions or the flowing creases of their robes. All of his sculptures gained a deep, soft lustre in the glow of the museum’s fluorescent lights. He picked each of them up in turn, flipping them over to reveal the rings that signalled each sculpture’s beginning as a humble block of wood. When I asked him in halting Mandarin which of them was his favourite, he answered within a heartbeat. “It’s this statue of Zhuge Liang at the back,” was this enthusiastic response as he moved swiftly to a sculpture that had been prominently displayed on a pedestal at the back of the room. “Zhuge Liang symbolises of wisdom in China, and this carving is so lifelike. It’s also very heavy, and I enjoy feeling its weight.” He went on to elaborate on the special features of each of the different types of wood used to carve sculptures, and how the density of each sculpture was indicative of its worth. I began to have a sense that he was taking pride not just in his role as a collector, but also in his efforts to highlight Chinese culture.

It took some scrutiny to find signs of the stated focus of the museum – Chinese opera. I had to peer past the statues to see the information on the histories of different types of Chinese opera on the walls. Each dialect group in different regions of China has its own variant of opera – besides the ubiquitous Beijing Opera there are other styles such as Fujian, Teochew and Cantonese (Yue) opera that have historically been prominent in Singapore due to its large southern Chinese diaspora. I looked at the pictures of actors and actresses in flowing, richly-embroidered brocade costumes; their faces heavily made up in the standard white and deep pink that is characteristic of the genre. Chinese opera is a demanding art, involving not just singing and choreography for distinct roles, but also martial arts training for the many mythological and historical tales that are the subjects of many a traditional play. It was also a vanishing tradition, with many troupes seeing slowing demand and a lack of young actors. I thought that he would have been more openly proud of this particular tradition that he was helping to safeguard.

And yet Mr Bian was modest, if not reluctant, about mentioning his involvement in the Chinese opera scene. “You must enjoy looking at my pictures,” was his only wry comment when I came to a series of framed newspaper clippings at a corner. In bold Chinese characters, it proclaimed the couple’s status as one of the leading promoters of Chinese opera in Singapore, and mentioned the many shows they had participated in. His wife, herself still an active performer and instructor, gave no indication of the recognition she enjoyed in her hushed conversations with her husband while I was in the room. And yet under his mild-mannered exterior, Mr Bian had an eclectic of talents. He had published a photo album on the stray cats of Singapore and held his own exhibition, and a drinks menu pasted above a register referenced the opera-themed cafe he had opened along Kandahar Street.

“It’s tiring,” he put it bluntly. “I’m a musician. I also run photography classes and opera classes. It’s a rich life, yes. A rich life, but busy.” He appeared a man of simple desires, content to avoid the trappings that fame would have wrought upon him. Perhaps he delighted more in the joy he gained from his hobbies and the joy of an honest conversation than his hectic career as a Chinese opera instructor. The museum was in itself a product of his subtle but refined tastes, and reflected well who he appeared to be. Small and nondescript, but brimming with a rich and understated cultural life.

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The statue of Zhuge Liang that was Mr Bian’s favourite. Zhuge Liang was a famous war strategist from the Three Kingdoms era and is often depicted with a crane-feather fan. This statue was carved from nanmu, the precious wood of the Phoebe zhennan tree that was widely coveted by Chinese royalty.

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A statue of Wang Xizhi, a famous calligrapher who lived during the Jin Dynasty, that is another of Bian’s favourites. “This statue was carved from a single piece of nanmu. It’s a very expensive wood. Normally it’s used to make musical instruments, but this one was too small so it was used for a sculpture instead. It depicts him as an old man; his wanderlust and his transcendence of the material aspects of life.”

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A sculpture of the God of Longevity carved from a piece of boxwood. Part of the bark was retained on the sculpture “to give the appearance of wearing robes.” The peach the sculpture is balancing on his head is a symbol of longevity in Chinese cultures, and flour peaches are often consumed on birthdays for this reason.

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A statue of Guanyin – more commonly known as the Goddess of Mercy – carved from an un-dyed piece of yellow aromatic wood.

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A carving of a ruyi sceptre made from boxwood. It is adorned with five smaller engravings of bats, which are associated with good fortune because of the characters for ‘bat’ and ‘prosperity’ in Chinese are read the same way.

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A nanmu sculpture of Guanyin before an incense burner, both carved from centuries-old wood that has attained a darker sheen. This sculpture depicts her as the Thousand Arms Guanyin, with more overt references to her status as a boddhsivatta in Buddhist canon through her attire and the lotus flower she sits on.

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Three sculptures of the Laughing Buddha next to a statue of the God of Status. The first two sculptures from the left have part of their bark left on the statue.

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A cypress statue of Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms general and a figure frequently venerated as a god of war. “You can tell how old the wood is from its colour; the younger ones are lighter-coloured. The tree this was made from must have been eighty, ninety years old.”

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Copies of old scripts for Beijing Opera plays. The title on the left is ‘Sending the City Maiden for A Thousand Li (a unit of measurement)’ while the one on the right reads ‘Five Women Praying For Longevity’.

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A scene from a wall depicting a Cantonese opera performance of the famous folktale, ‘Madame White Snake’. The titular character is in the middle, with her sworn sister the Green Snake Lady on the left and the mortal Xu Xian on the right.

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A Chinese opera headdress above a mask that was typically worn by performers. The colour of each mask was used to convey certain attributes about the character. White masks were often associated with treachery and evil, and usually worn by the villain.

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A headdress and phoenix gown worn by the female (dan) roles in Chinese opera.

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Three dolls depicting the three main characters of ‘Journey to the West’, presented as opera characters. From left to right they are Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing, and Sun Wukong.

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A display featuring Mr Bian’s book of photographs on the stray cats of Singapore. “I find the stray cats cute. I did it to promote tourism to Singapore. I think these cats represent the idyllic atmosphere here.”

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Mr Bian Huibin.