‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.
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
The sight of a lion dancers’ van parked outside the outdoor car-park at the Ghim Moh Wholesale Market and Food Centre stopped me dead in my tracks. Continue reading
Every Chinese New Year, my mother will transform the house into a pastry factory. Plastic boxes of deep orange pineapple paste would line the shelves of the fridge, stacked high in preparation to be turned into thousands of pineapple tarts. For afternoons on end, she would sit in the living room over trays of shortcrust dough, meticulously wrapping them over the pineapple paste into little balls to be coated with brushstrokes of egg yolk. One of the things that excites me about Chinese New Year is the array of special foods that only appear at this time of year, and my mother is one of the few that still keep alive the practice of making their own New Year treats from scratch.
Now, it’s easy to find racks of kueh bangkit (crumbly flower-shaped coconut biscuits), kueh bahulu (oblong fluffy golden-brown cakes) and tiny sugee cakes in any local supermarket leading up to the occassion. However, there was a time when these special goodies were mostly produced by individuals and given out to loved ones. My father recounts a time when his family used to make their own ‘love letters’ – thin egg rolls curled into slender tubes – as a family operation, with brothers and cousins involved in specific steps of the process. “When I got old enough, I was upgraded from mould-pressing to rolling,” he’d once proudly told us, referring to the different stages of production when the batter is poured into a hot iron mould to solidify before being rolled into its characteristic shape. The direct precursor to my mother’s own baking tradition, though, would have to be the far more painstaking process my grandmother used to go through to make kok zai every year.
“Ah Ma used to make them to give to people,” she had explained. A New Year snack that is a signature of the Cantonese community, kok zai are puff pastries that vaguely resemble curry puffs but are filled with candied peanuts instead. I have never tried them due to my allergies, but I found them tempting regardless. “Last time me, Aunt Anne, Aunt Eileen and Ah Ma used to make it together. Ah Ma would scold all of us for not folding it properly, because then the dough will come apart when you fry it. The peanuts will float to the surface, and you know when you burn sugar it becomes black, so the kok zai will also end up having black spots.”
“Aunt Anne used to be in charge of rolling the dough. She used to roll it until her arms ache like crazy. At the time we had no roller, so you know what we use? Glass bottle. We didn’t have a food processor back then so we just use all these things lying around the house. We would roll and roll and roll. Then we had to cut the dough out; didn’t have cookie cutters so we used glass cups to make circular shapes. Then we would peel the groundnut and blow the shell off while Ah Ma mixed the dough. No mixer, so she used her hands as the mixer. She’ll add flour, eggs, something-else-I-don’t-know, and mix the dough like she was washing clothes. It’s very thick so she had to pull very hard. Then after that, Ah Ma would fry everything. It’s very tasty, because the peanuts have a nice smell when you fry them, plus the sugar makes it so fragrant.”
Thankfully, the advent of kitchen technology has made the process of baking New Year treats a lot less arduous. Nevertheless, my mother still insists on making her own pineapple paste, and she would sit on the kitchen floor with a massive cleaver to skin fresh pineapples. Occassionally they would result in nasty cuts, but more often in hours of hard work and waves of exhaustion. She would rarely allow me to help her with rolling the dough for the tarts, because every tart has to be exactly the same size and shape. Having vastly expanded her baking repertoire to include cakes, jellies, macarons and even fondant art, her efforts have only multiplied as she applies the same rigour to various other kinds of food. This year, she has made four massive carp out of coconut jelly. Each one of them is coloured with different shades of orange to make it look three-dimensional and strips of coconut flesh set in patterns within its body.
The types of snacks my family bakes have changed with time. My grandmother stopped making her own kok zai after my grandfather’s death four decades ago, and there might be a time when my mother will stop making her own tarts too. But what has, and will continue to remain, a time-honoured tradition will be that of perfection. My mother applies the same merciless precision to the shape of her tarts as my grandmother did to the folds of each of her puff pastries. And it is a mercilessness born for the love of the craft, of tradition, and of the friends and family whose stomachs these treats would go on to warm.
I doubt I will ever be able to bake half as well as my mother or grandmother. My fingers are far too clumsy for the dextrous cuts my mother makes in each lump of pastry that she will turn into lively hedeghog-shaped tarts. Neither are they nimble enough to make the miniscule, neat, regular folds that characterise my grandmother’s kok zai. Yet it is my aim to preserve these practices however I can. Whatever my expression of ‘perfection’ will be, I hope that one day I will be carry on the spirit in which these pastries will painfully and lovingly made.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”