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The Grassroots Reading Room

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No, this isn’t a reference to the local network of ground-level political volunteers (Singaporeans would know what I mean). Continue reading

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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.

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.

Christmas at the Open Farm Community Market

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The first time I visited the Open Farm Community (OFC) Market last year, vendors were selling their wares out of the boots of their cars. The informal, leisurely atmosphere hadn’t diminished when I visited again–though the cars were this time replaced by multi-coloured tents and an entirely new variety of home-grown goods on the 3rd of December for the market’s Christmas edition. Despite the Open Farm Community being tucked away beyond a swathe of trees along Minden Road, it had managed to attract a sizeable crowd, some even with families in tow to enjoy this lively collection of independent stallholders.

Besides two of the OFC’s gardeners having a stall on-site selling gardening tools, the regular fixtures of other small stallholders selling locally-grown vegetables, seafood and other natural goods was testament to the site’s goal to promote the incorporation of sustainable living into an urban landscape. “Most of the food we grow goes to the kitchen,” one of the gardeners told me, referring to the restaurant standing next to the vegetable garden on the grounds. Though space and volunteering constraints limits the amount of food that can be grown for the kitchens, the gardeners are hoping to expand their operations. “We also have five chickens,” he added. “We got them four months ago, just to run around and keep the soil fertile.” 

But before I would visit the grounds’ resident poultry, I decided to explore the other goods on offer. In the spirit of community, the market was also a place where small business-owners could advertise their wares with more conviviality than competition. Tall white racks stood heavily-laden with leafy greens and seed packs. Two guys selling mead (flavoured with hops or navel oranges) hawked their goods in between a woman selling thick colourful cubes of artisanal marshmallows, and a couple with dainty pastries for display (the first offering that caught my eye was their ‘Brinjal Cake’–an odd ingredient for a dessert!). A beekeeper invited me to come closer to observe sting-less (and two sting-bearing) bees flitting around tubes of honey made from trees in the Malaysian rainforest: ranging from light amber (cinnamon) to a deep golden-brown (tea tree), from sugary-sweet to mildly tangy.

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A pair of Apis cerana attracted to the scent of their own honey at the Nutrinest stall. One of the staff, Xavier, gave me handy tips on how best to photograph them. “I also have an interest in photography”, he explained.

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A small showcase of the variety of products that can be made from the hard work of a bee and the bounties of tropical rainforest trees. Xavier explained that they took care to ensure the bees produced honey in an environment that had not been poluted by herbicides or agrochemicals.

 

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A corkboard displays the variety of foods that can be spiced up by the addition of nut butter, from muesli to milkshakes. “We tried making all of these ourselves,” the owner, Ming, said. Unable to sample any of his goods due to my nut allergy, we settled for a conversation instead. “The best thing is to do something you like. If you want to be a music composer, you know that you might not be earning a lot of salary. But there are composers out there who can become famous, like Liang Wenfu.”

I threaded my way among them, holding back the temptation to buy everything I saw, to find out what motivated some of the stall-owners to venture into the niche position of selling home-made artisanal goods. I couldn’t resist stopping by when I saw Wholesome Paws’ doggie treats, enamoured by the unique flavour combinations (their dog cookies were made of gazpacho flour, banana and coconut, among other ingredients).

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“The three dogs on the packaging are actually my own dogs. The black one is the one with the yeast problem. I picked her up from Tuas. She has only three legs. But apart from her allergies, she’s doing okay. I adopted the other two from SOSD (Save Our Street Dogs) as puppies, but not the black one. Human’s intestines are like,” and here the owner made a squiggly gesture with one finger, “but dogs’ intestines are straight, so they can’t really digest gluten well. My grandmother used to feed him bread all the time–eat one bite, then throw–until one day we noticed he started to smell. I ended up starting the bakery because my dogs can’t eat the commercially-produced treats.”

Actually, apart from the allergies, I don’t think strays are particularly unpredictable. The allergies are because they didn’t get enough nutrition from their mothers, as puppies. It’s just like the difference between you and me. There are many different dogs at the shelter. Of course there will be one or two that have some trauma or sheng jing bing (Chinese slang for ‘mental problem’) but most of them are okay.”

By the time I’d traversed most of the shops, the mid-noon sun had begun to wear on me. The last stall I stopped by was run by a young woman selling coconut water concoctions, gaily coloured with various tropical fruits and flowers. The storefront itself was a chromatic array of glass bottles, which were mixed and matched to produce equally psychedelic drinks. Though the vivid indigo of their blue pea flower flavour was tempting, I opted for the owner’s personal recommendation of rose-and-dragonfruit. The watery crunch of dragonfruit flesh, coupled with the snap of minute dragonfruit seeds and the subtle fragrance of rose petals dropped into a cup of cold coconut water, made for a surprisingly refreshing combination.

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“This is the first time we’re trying this,” she said. “We wanted to try something new. You can normally find us at Maxwell Road Food Centre.” 

At this point, my attention was diverted to a squirming black bunch of fur tethered to the edge of the stall with a leash. “His name is Bubba! He’s ten weeks old.” Though, she also admitted, she found Rottweilers adorable. What was stopping her from getting one, I asked? She giggled and pointed at Bubba.

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Bubba amid a crowd of admirers.

And before I left, I crept round to the back of the garden to check on the aforementioned chickens in the coop. There were three massive roosters and a pair of hens, one of whom was already sitting on a clutch of eggs. I couldn’t help but feel a burst of excitement at the newest additions to the garden, and maybe the thought of newer additions to come once those eggs hatched into tiny chicks.

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At the end of the day, I came home trudging under the weight of two glass bottles of coconut smoothie and a bag of dog treats, the aromas of dragonfruit and rose still pleasantly tingling on my palate. The murmur of friendly chatter died away behind me, and I pondered how this market didn’t just gather a group of business-owners, but also a chance to partake of a common philosophy for the spirit of an open community.