Tag Archive | Christmas

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.

Conversations with a Tissue Paper Seller 2

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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.

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.