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Roads to Redemption

Church elders putting down icons of Jesus on the cross in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd as worshippers look on from outside the crowded church.

A friend’s Insta-story reminded me that March 30 this year was not only Good Friday, but also the beginning of the observance period for the Chinese tomb-sweeping festival known as Qingming (清明). The coincidence of two religious festivals, each revolving around different ways of honouring the deceased, struck me deeply. And so, I was drawn to discover how each of these groups would experience the same day in their distinct ways.

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An Evening with Sar Kong Lion Dance

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A group of the ‘older uncles’ listening to a commemorative speech by other members of Lam Fong Fut Hok amid cans of beer and plates of buffet spread.

The men and boys behind many a lion dance performance are not just performers. Years of travelling round the island as a troupe and practicing together has made them a fraternity. And the end of the old year was a good time to cement that status.

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The Bakery by Woodlands Sourdough

P1030468Serene Centre, it seems, is replete with little restaurants and cafés – little food havens in a city that can otherwise feel busy and unfeeling. A newcomer seems to have stealthily appeared at the far end of the building, overlooking the roads leading through the Bukit Timah area with a placid nonchalance. Continue reading

Through the Lens of Ice Cream

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

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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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.

 

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.