‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.
No, this isn’t a reference to the local network of ground-level political volunteers (Singaporeans would know what I mean). Continue reading
I’d written before on the captivating energy of the lion dance – as an outsider looking in, the clamour of the gongs and cymbals and the colour and vigour of the dancers seem like a hallmark of cultural artistry to some, and a fantastic spectacle to most. It was only after I had gotten a chance to join the lion dancers at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (岡州会馆) along New Bridge Road that I gained a tiny glimpse into the world that really exists behind these performances. Continue reading
Last Sunday, my mother made an Instagram post of three things. Continue reading
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.
During peaceful family moments around the dinner table facing the TV, my father will occassionally disclose some moments from the past. Some of those involved his small, understated collection of heirlooms. One of those was, surprisingly, an item he had been given at birth – a tiger claw pendant, which he had safeguarded until today. The claw itself had darkened with age into a deep, bark-like brown. I could cradle it squarely in the center of my palm, and felt only the cool solidity of the metal it had been set in. It had been set in gold by a Johorean craftsman, my father explained, “which is why the quality is not so good.” It was a simple job, with four-petaled flowers being embossed around the ribbed base and the claw tapering down into a rounded point. Perhaps, I imagined, it was there to conceal the lethality of the curved hook of a tiger claw – which only served to make it look more regal and powerful.
The tiger claw pendant had been a gift from my father’s grandfather. He had given it to my maternal grandmother when my father was born, being the firstborn son of my great-grandfather’s eldest daughter. “He had five older sons,” my father explained, “but my mother was always his favourite.” Male children have a particular significance in Chinese culture, which seemed both fitting and ironic in this context: my great-grandfather lavishing his daughter more than his sons, and at the same time forking out a sum of cash to give his grandson an especially lavish gift. (My eldest aunt, born before my father, never received something as extravagant as this.) It must also have carried with it no small measure of my great-grandfather’s hopes: tigers are symbols of power, virility and masculinity in Chinese culture. By wearing a tiger claw, it was hoped that the strength and courage of the animal it came from would imbue my father with similar attributes as he was growing up.
When he grew older, my father received another gift. It was his father’s old Rolex watch that had specially been bequeathed to him upon his death. It was nothing particularly expensive: in fact, one of my aunts had scorned it as a cheap watch. But the most valuable thing about it was that it had belonged to my father’s father. Again, the gift had been out of his significance as the firstborn son in the household. My father should pass it on to his own firstborn son, my aunt had said. And so, these items will hopefully continue to be passed on, accumulating memories and the weight of history with time.
Will I receive any of these heirlooms from my own father? Only time will tell. Tigers are now endangered species, and some might perhaps frown upon the wearing of such pendants as blatant encouragement of the wildlife parts trade. I don’t condone the slaughter of endangered animals just to use their body parts for jewellry, either. But to me, this old pendant is not just any animal part merchandise. It was my father’s own tiger claw pendant, forged out of love and hope by his own mother’s father. I don’t think I will ever bear to see it thrown away. I want to keep it where it can continue to remind someone of all that it represents – the power of a tiger, and the power of a grandfather’s love.
Lately, every time I walk down the covered walkway leading from Buona Vista MRT Station to The Star Vista, I see an old woman sitting against a pillar. In the heat of the day she sits out in the open, flanked by the footfall of passers-by on one side and the dust stirred up by flocks of pigeons on the other. She was another of the itinerant tissue-paper sellers so often seen in Singapore’s crowded spaces, attempting to eke out a living by selling meagre packs of tissues to largely oblivious commuters. I had passed her by many times on my way home. This Christmas, I decided I could ignore her no longer.
I set out for the supermarket, feverishly combing the shelves for something she might need. I ended up purchasing a bunch of bananas, a pack of Milo, and two bottles of water–things that I hoped would make her stay out under the afternoon sun at least a little more bearable. Gingerly, I approached her usual seat, marked by a red place mat and a wicker basket filled with packets of tissue paper. Would she reject my gift? What would she think of my decision to do this? Was I even doing the right thing?
She was eating out of a styrofoam packet of mixed rice with vegetables when I saw her, and had a plastic cup of coffee at her feet. At least she was eating well, I thought with relief. She was also talking to a younger woman I didn’t recognise–a welcome respite from the hours of boredom she must have faced everyday. Swallowing, I presented the shopping bags to her, sheepishly explaining that I felt bad for seeing her sitting out in the heat all day. I didn’t feel it was enough to explain my sudden burst of charity, but it was worth a try. Unexpectedly, my gift was met with another. “Aiyoh, you’re so considerate!” both women exclaimed in Mandarin, and the elderly lady pressed something into my hands. It was a cardboard bookmark wrapped in transparent plastic, with ‘Great is God’s Love For Us.’ piped onto the surface in orange and green fluid.
Feeling that it would be inappropriate to dash off right after presenting my gift, and curious about their chance encounter, I stayed behind to talk to them. Despite the vicissitudes they must have been confronted with, both women constantly had radiant smiles on their faces, punctuating their conversations with enthusiastic acknowledgments of God’s blessings in their lives. At one point, another woman walked by and handed the elderly woman some money. “God Bless You!” she exclaimed loudly in English, cheerfully handing her another bookmark from the thick brown sheaf packed next to her packets of tissue. And though the younger woman spoke at a faster, more staccato pace than the deliberate speech of her elderly companion, both of them spoke with a simple, unadultered happiness. What said they said to me is translated directly from Mandarin.
“I’m from SBC at Redhill. Aunty (referring to the old lady) worships at the church here (Star Vista). I happened to come here and both of us believe in God, so we just started talking. I’m originally from Malaysia, you know! I have three children. The oldest is 20 years old, only 2 years older than you. He’s studying in ITE and also works repairing air-conditioners, he got a 2.9 G… G whatever you call it, so he’s deciding whether to stay back or to just go to the army. The second is 18 and the third is 15, all studying here. The eldest and the youngest are also Christian, and their father told them, ‘If you want to be Christians, don’t come into my house.’ But I told them, ‘Don’t worry! Leave your worries to God.’ I can’t read very well, so when I read the Bible I’m very slow; I listen to an audiobook. You know, my child’s boyfriend’s cousin, he went to Malacca and a car ran over him. We had to go to the hospital to get him a new leg. We thought he wouldn’t make it, but praise God, the flesh began to grow around the metal they put in during the surgery! You speak English or Chinese? In English my name is Kristina, with a ‘K’. In Chinese, you can just call me Lizhen.”
“Just call me Po-po (婆婆, ‘grandma’ in Mandarin); will do. I used to sell tissue papers somewhere else, but since I came here I’ve been able to sell tissue papers for a long time. I have a sick husband at home, so I have to go out and support him. I got to know Jesus several decades ago, but only really accepted him six years ago. I used to bring my Bible with me when I went out, but it was too heavy so I decided not to bring it anymore. If not, I could read it while I’m here selling tissue paper. These bookmarks were made by a good friend of mine to give out, so just take one! Aunty knows so many young boys and girls; I cannot remember all their names. You’ve seen me here for so many weeks and you only come and talk to me now? Why did you spend so much on me when you’re not working yet?”
In this season of giving, it can sometimes be hard to remember that those we perceive we’re benefiting may help us more than we help them. There are some who believe that many of these tissue-paper-sellers are simply trying to play off people’s sympathies without having to work at a proper job. But the simple joy and contentedness these two women shared with me despite their circumstances was something that sincerely touched me. I walked away that afternoon with a renewed appreciation of the little kindnesses that can light up our individual journeys through life.
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.
One of my fondest memories of being sick as a child–as odd as it sounds–was being able to have my mother’s seafood porridge on demand. (Growing up, the only porridge I thought conceivable was made with rice. It would be years before I learnt about oatmeal.) She would boil white rice in a deep pan until the grains burst (‘this is the Cantonese way–Teochews eat porridge with the whole grain intact’), and added tiny whitebait and morsels of dried scallops that poked up enticingly from the pearly-white mass like jewels from the depths of a treasure chest. I would drizzle light soy sauce all over my bowl and stir in it vigorously with a porcelain spoon until it turned a deep honey-brown. Once I had scoured the bowl clean and licked the salty residue off my spoon until it shone with a dull film, I would rush to the kitchen for a second helping, and often a third. While a fever could turn eight-year-old me off my childhood delicacies of crabsticks and button mushrooms and even the bright golden sugar loaves from BreadTalk, my mum’s porridge was the one dish I could never bear to turn down.
Years have passed. My mother experimented with various iterations of her standard recipe–garnishing the bowl with slivers of cold fishcake, adding mounds of whole scallop into the pot, and even forgoing the seafood altogether and making porridge with the leftovers of the previous night’s duck or chicken. She was a virtuoso in the kitchen, whipping up not just excellent southern Chinese soups and stir-fries but also Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai and even Western main courses with nothing more than a cursory glance at a cookbook (or, in some cases, the TV screen whenever TLC was on). Yet even after savouring the piquant spice of her take on pork-and-kimchi stew, or biting into her fluffy hot baked potatoes and lamb chops liberally garnished with rosemary at Christmas dinner, the simple porridge I had tasted all those years ago remained my favourite home-cooked meal.
One night, I asked her if she could cook it again. The faint aroma of scallops wafting from the kitchen tickled my nostrils and seemed to smile on me from happier, bygone days. I opened the door to the fridge and happened to chance upon a small plastic vial containing numerous thin brown strips–peeled dried scallop. I remembered how she would sit over the living room table amid a heap of dried scallops, painstakingly peeling each of them with a fruit knife until they were reduced to the tiny scraps that could add an almost divine fragrance to a bowl of porridge. And then I remembered how I used to pop open the fridge door and sneakily help myself to the products of her hard work.
I ate that bowl with the same porcelain spoon I had always used–glazed white china with a blue rim, decorated with a stylised blue fish, part of the ‘rooster-and-fish series’ of porcelain utensils we always used to eat rice or noodles with. The red-topped Kikkoman bottle from which I poured the soy sauce hadn’t changed either, though age had left faint scratch marks down its length. As I ran the soy sauce into the pearly-white mass until it turned a deep honey-brown, I decided to ask her how the recipe began.
“I can’t remember when I first learned to cook it. Your Auntie Anne started making it, so I learnt from her. We would add peanuts, the small fish, and minced pork. Minced pork becomes soggy when you put it in and it doesn’t taste very nice, so I took it out later. We didn’t have enough money to buy scallops. Later when we went to those Chinese restaurants, we saw that they would use scallops, so I just use. I used to feed your ché (姐, ‘older sister’ in Hokkien) and ko (哥, ‘older brother’) the peanut porridge when they were young, but because you have a peanut allergy I took them out. With peanuts it’s nicer. You boil, boil boil the peanuts it will expand, expand, expand and all the flavour will come out.
I didn’t cook when I was living with my mother-in-law. Her cooking was so oily. She would make enough soup to take a bath in, and her soup was so tasteless. She would also fry her vegetables in so much oil you can see the oil at the bottom of the plate. But her salted vegetables and pork was very good–it’s called giam chhai cha ti bak (咸菜炸豬肉) in Hokkien. She will add onions and carrots and potato and stir-fry it together and it will be very delicious. She’s Teochew and I’m Hokkien so sometimes we cannot understand each other. Once she asked me look for the diao gui because we were eating chicken rice. I went to look all over for a hanging chicken, and told them I couldn’t find one. Then they all laughed at me, because diao gui in Teochew means ‘cucumber’!
Sometimes I would cook for your da gu (大姑, ‘eldest paternal aunt’) if I had a bit extra porridge, for her to eat at her shop. There’s only Auntie Ah Lan’s fishball noodles next door, and everyday eat already will get boring. I would also sometimes make tom yum. I went for classes when I was working, so I know how to make.
To be a good cook, all you need is the interest to learn how to cook. You never come and watch me in the kitchen, how are you going to learn to make this when you’re older?”
Chinese New Year had already wound down for many Singaporean Chinese families, and most homes lay quietly curled into themselves on what could be largely considered a humdrum Thursday evening. Yet there was one house which had opened itself up, and was instead bubbling with festive cheer once more. More than forty pairs of chopsticks bristled under one roof that night, brandished by people from a melting pot of nationalities invited to partake in these special lunar festivities.
Before each group sat a plate of yusheng–a Southeast Asian New Year’s dish I was already well-acquainted with. It’s a salad consisting of strips of raw vegetables such as carrots, cucumber, radish and turnip meant to be tossed with various condiments of auspicious portent. However, it took on a new significance with the prospect of having to introduce it as a foreign dish to the guests of OCTOPUS Exchange Students Singapore. Three buses would pull up in a different driveway every other Thursday, bearing throngs of international university students eager for good company and great home-cooked fare. The arrangements had been lovingly prepared by none other than a team of volunteers from Mt Carmel Bible Presbyterian Church who would host the students – mostly from the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University – at a different home each week.
An eager silence filled the air as the eleven condiments were emptied, one by one, onto the waiting plate. I named off the respective blessings, all derived from Chinese homonyms between the name of the food and auspicious concepts, in my head – raw fish for annual abundance, fried crackers for troves of wealth, green radish for lasting youth, a sprinkle of lime for felicity.
Then, at the signal, forty pairs of chopsticks dug in to toss the salad into the air in a bid for auspicious wishes. Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Hongkongers, Indians, Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Finns, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and Poles joined their voices in a tentative chorus as they explored this new tradition, led by the raucous shouts of their Singaporean hosts.
“Lo (‘toss’), ah! High GPA! Good health! Prosperity!”
This classic local New Year tradition was an apt start to OCTOPUS’ annual Chinese New Year celebrations, which like other sessions was meant to share a little more of Singapore (and local hospitality) each week to its inquisitive audience of exchange students. The rest of the night was occupied by huge plates of fried egg noodles (“Does this have a name?” I was asked by an Indian Masters student, “It seems like there are so many different kinds of fried noodle in this country.”), savoury glutinous rice cakes and a pot of boiling water at the counter which was constantly being filled with newly-wrapped potstickers. While some chose to have a go at making Chinese food for the first time, others swapped tidbits of conversation. A Frenchman talked about his plans to backpack through the region, a Dutch undergraduate introduced me to Sinterklaas (“like Santa Claus, but more important”) and oliebollen, and one of the volunteers regaled us with his stories of weddings and power suits from his recent visit to New Delhi.
At the tinkle of a bell, the chatter began to die down as the students gathered round the TV for the night’s discussion. The speaker, Leong Ho, gave a brief introduction to the festival before whipping out his acoustic guitar and leading the gathering in traditional New Year’s songs. Though many tongues fumbled with the intricacies of the Mandarin verses, no one missed out on the hearty chorus: “Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni ya!” (“Bless you, bless you, bless you!”)
Once we had been broken up into discussion groups, we began to reflect on the significance of the different occassions of food and fun and frivolity that add colour to the calendars of cultures all over the world. The exchange students talked about the festivals they celebrate – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Holi, Diwali, Mid-Autumn, Oshogatsu – and what the values and meaning they held. And as I listened to them speak, I felt as if I could pick out the threads that appeared to run through the festivities of a great majority of humanity – the common celebration of family, goodness and giving that connects all of us no matter which occasions we honour. Only with these were we all able to come together and celebrate a foreign festival in good cheer.
The night ended on a sweet note with plates of muah chee – sticky rice balls dusted with peanuts and sugar – and OCTOPUS’ very own version of nian gao (a sticky glutinous rice cake traditionally eaten for the Chinese New Year, since the word for ‘sticky’ in Mandarin is a homonym with the word for ‘year’) served with grated coconut. ‘Love letters’, also known as crispy biscuit rolls, were distributed to the guests as, one by one, they returned to the bus and left the house as tranquil as the surrounding night.
Nights like this remind me that xenophobia is not as persistent a feature of local society – or, as it lately seems, many societies in different areas of the globe – as many of us might sometimes believe. I’m always still surprised by how there are people out there willing to open both heart and home to complete strangers, with the simple goal of letting them find the warmth and companionship they might pine for back at home. And I hope that at least even this simple show of generosity would make a difference to the stay of the exchange students who had graced us with their company. With this, I believe the Year of the Monkey shall swing off to a good year ahead.