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On A Search for Success

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Local secondary school students after receiving their ‘O’ Level results. Source.

Friday was a harrowing day for a large swathe of students across the island. The release of examination results for the candidates of the 2016 Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (often just called ‘A’ Levels for short) would undoubtedly represent a momentous closure for many students after the typical 12 years of formal education one typically undergoes in the local education system. And this could be momentous for better or for worse. Continue reading

Christmas, and Ghosts of the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Cultural Tolerance

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

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

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

A Note of Apology

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It has been almost a year since I made my last post on this blog. I initially vacillated over creating this post, given the meagre readership this blog now receives after having been sadly neglected. However, I felt I owed at least some sort of explanation to my readers and followers who had taken the time out to lend me their appreciation and support. And so, here I am again.

I’m sincerely sorry for having appeared to abandon this effort last year. Having started school again, I found that I didn’t have enough time or energy to devote to this blog, and even now my studies are unfortunately giving me emotional and psychological strain. Nevertheless, I’ve resolved to post whenever I can, if I feel like there are moments and people worth sharing. Even if I will not be able to post regularly for a good while yet, I hope to be able to continue to provide at least some things of value throughout the year. I have never completely stopped exploring in my own way, and the goal I stated at the beginning of this endeavour still stands.

Once again I would like to extend a huge thanks to those of you who have remembered this little corner of the Internet in some way thus far. A Happy Lunar New Year to all, and may the coming year bring you peace and fulfilment in the days to come.

A Look Back

Children playing at a picnic in the Botanic Gardens on Christmas Eve.

Children playing at a picnic in the Botanic Gardens on Christmas Eve.

This holiday season, being also poised between the end of an old year and the beginning of a new year, was for me a time to reflect. To let myself unwind, bask in the fantastic company of family and friends, and look back on the experiences–both the good and not-so-good–that I’d been fortunate enough to have this year.

Starting this blog, and making an effort to explore new places and find new people to talk to, has let me learn so much. Initially I had many doubts: would I be able to keep this up for more than a week? What if people don’t want to talk to me? What if I can’t find anyone to talk to? These doubts still plague me from time to time. But, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As I embarked on my own journey I’m glad to say that I feel many of my doubts were unfounded. In fact, I’ve even been startled by the generosity and warmth of some of the ordinary people I’ve come into contact with.

I feel like I’ve managed to learn a lot from my brief encounters with the people I’ve talked to–the people who have made me smile, laugh, ponder and cry at various points. I’ve learnt that the hopes, dreams, desires and fears of the people I’ve met are, at a base level, very similar and so very relatable. I’ve learnt more about what there really is to life beyond the environment and experiences I grew up with, through the nuggets of philosophy and wisdom I’ve been presented with strangers. And I’ve learnt from being able to snatch a deeper glimpse into humanity that, perhaps, there really is a common thread of humanity that runs through us all. Everyone, no matter how insignificant they may seem (or believe themselves to be), has a story to tell, some unique insight to offer, something profoundly touching or inspiring about the way they live.

I don’t know who I’ll meet, or where I’ll go next. After all, things never turn out exactly as planned. Yet I feel it’s the pleasant surprises I stumble upon when I let my feet guide me that give me the most joy. As this year moves on to the next, I hope that–someday, somehow–I’ll be able to spread to others, through this blog, the kindness I’ve received from all the lovely individuals I’ve crossed paths with.

To those who are reading this: thank you for lending your support and encouragement to this humble endeavour of mine. I hope I shall be able to continue to provide a satisfying reading experience for all of you out there. May everyone have a happy holiday season, and a splendid New Year!

Here It Begins

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What lies out there?

There were days when I’d be feeling especially thoughtful when out walking in my mother’s garden. Some days, I’d think, maybe we need to step outside the rush of life and our thoughts to take the time to appreciate the little things around us–almost like listening to a flower closely enough to hear it sing, I reckoned.

Potential cheesiness aside, this is why I decided to name my blog the way I did. This blog is going to be part of my personal quest to be able to explore the world around me and get in touch with all it’s made up of. I’ll be writing about the people, animals, things, places and events that I feel capture different facets–and a different part of the essence–of this little red dot I live on.

I doubt I’ll have the ability to be able to provide enough to cater to the reading pleasure of those out there who have come by this blog, but nevertheless I hope whatever I write about will be able to convey to you, dear readers, some of the spirit of this Singapore I call home.