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
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
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.
Hastings Road was bubbling with an unusually expectant anticipation. The buffalo cart at the mouth of the road was festooned with coloured streamers. Visitors had come in their finest festive garb to the mini animal farm, bearing special gifts of bananas for the cattle, while a keeper indulged the animals with handfuls of boiled rice and turmeric. I had not just visited on an ordinary Sunday; I had arrived on one of the most important days in the Tamil calendar: Surya Pongal. The second day of the harvest festival Pongal, it was an occassion dedicated to the ritual cooking of the eponymous pongal rice pudding out in the sunlight as a thanks offering to the Hindu solar god Surya. It would also kick off the beginning of the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar in spectacular fashion.
Three sugarcane stems stood tied together at one end, over what appeared to be an innocuous clay brazier. It wasn’t directly under the glare of the sun as it is traditionally meant to be, but their leaves seemed to stretch for the sky beyond the white tent roofing sheltering the road. Sugarcane, as a signature harvest crop, symbolised prosperity and was thus an auspicious sign under which the all-important cooking of milk for the pudding would begin. Milk, as a life-giving substance and a product of the cow which is so sacred to Hinduism, took pride of place. The moment when it was cooked until it overflowed would usher in abundance and be a cause of riotous celebration.
Mr Manoj, a balding middle-aged man in a light blue kurta, set to work. Spreading out a variety of metal plates, he began arranging the ingredients – jaggery, ghee, raisins, cashews and the crucial dish of milk. A handful of turmeric leaves had been tied around the steel vessel that would be used for cooking . Onlookers slowly gathered, drawn by the lively charcoal fire that had been busily, but reverently, kindled. Pieces of hard orange candy were burned in a clay lamp, adding their own connotations of a sweet year to a growing stew of spiritual symbolism. Against the backdrop of a lively hubbub of Tamil commentary by an emcee, the man was quietly joined by more assistants. They anointed the corners of the objects with oil, stirred the fire with sticks and carried forth the banana leaf that would be the centrepiece for the food offerings.
More and more visitors began to gather. A Tamil woman wearing a cross around her neck stood with another wearing a hijab, eyeing the festivities as eagerly as their Hindu counterparts. There were curious Australian backpackers who had arrived next to Chinese onlookers toting cameras. The air was punctuated by waves of applause and shouts of ‘Pongal-o-pongal!’; cries of abundance in Tamil. The offerings were set out on the banana leaf: a pleasing mosiac from the colours of the ripe bananas, hibiscus flowers, and coconut shells that were quickly arranged at its corners.
Explosive festive music burst out from the sound system. The pot was uncovered and brought before the makeshift altar. Guests decked with flower garlands stepped up, to be passed a beaker of milk which they would take turns to add to the pot. A group of elderly men and women were brought toward the altar to do the honours, craning their necks to see what was happening. The crowd had grown so large I had to jostle to view even a slice of the festivities. The tempo of the music grew faster and faster.
Everyone was clapping in time, faster and faster. “We have to motivate the milk to boil over,” someone explained to me. Mr Manoj and an assistant in white crouched on either side of the pot, anxious, waiting.
The moment came in a split second. A huge fountainhead of white froth bubbled over, throwing the cover off its lid. The crowd roared. People cheered and laughed and cried out, “Pongal-o-pongal!” A woman in a red saree took the microphone from the emcee and made a high-pitched screeching call. The milk had overflowed – pongal, abundance, was ushered in for the new year.
Heady aromas of incense and the smoky scent of charcoal clung heavily to my clothes long after I left Hastings Road. All over the island, Tamils would be enjoying the pongal pudding, and its promise of sweetness for the year ahead.
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.
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.
It was that time of year again–for pineapple tarts and bak kwa, red packets and pussy willows, revelry and family. The Year of the Goat had breezed into town, and nowhere was the pulse of a new spring more deeply felt than in Chinatown.
In the middle of the day, a steady tide of visitors was already coursing up and down the length of Temple Street–a sign that the annual Chinese New Year bazaar was gearing up to full swing. For a while we retreated into the shelter between the wooden walls of Mei Heong Yuen Dessert’s flagship store, spooning up milk pudding and black sesame paste as we watched faces roll by, with some stopping for brief moments to exchange the fleetest of smiles, the storefront of a man selling preserved persimmons. When we stepped into the crowd, we found ourselves being swept along, and occassionally engulfed as the stream of human bodies–made up of as many middle-aged men as young ladies, tourists as there were locals, and grandchildren as there were grandparents–closed around us.
All sorts of vendors had decided to seize the oppurtunity to make a quick buck. Stands of cherry blossoms and rows of potted orchids gave way to stacked jars of almond cookies and bags of Taiwanese fruit jellies and dried kelp. Across from a man selling oranges attached to leafy branches was another surrounded by pendulous glowing red lanterns. Old women sitting amidst pairs of beaded slippers and wooden clogs would be replaced by stores selling Chinese-surname-themed brushes and zodiac plush dolls around the corner. The crackle of coffee-roasting chestnuts wafted alongside rows of deep green Buddha’s fingers and hourglass-shaped gourds. In the opposite street bristled all manner of New Year decorations in festive shades of red and gold, as sacks filled to the brim with peanuts and melon seeds beckoned to passers-by. No matter what they were selling, each stall-holder went about their job with an almost fevered determination, spurred by competition with their neighbours and the frenzy of activity around them. The mishmash of colour from their juxtaposed wares and the hollers that’d periodically pierce the air above us seemed to be harbingers of the beginning of yet another festive season.
On our way, we encountered a shabbily-dressed old lady wheeling a metal trolley purposefully past the stalls, the only one in the crowd who didn’t seem to be caught up in the heady bazaar atmosphere. As we watched, she approached the nearest bin and lifted the lid, looking in for discarded cardboard boxes which she could hope to sell for a meager sum of cash. As she returned to her trolley, my mother pressed a ten-dollar note into her hands. With a sudden warmth she began speaking profusely in Cantonese, “Thank you, miss! Happy New Year! Best of health!” Looking to me, she added, “Is this little lady your daughter? May you have progress in work!” before we again went our separate ways.
In their own ways, our encounter with the old lady and the presence of the street market appear to befit the Lunar New Year. The latter is a celebration of the pragmatism and entrepreneurship that had characterised the Chinese for many a generation, while the other serves as a reminder of the need on such a family-oriented time of year to really bring festive cheer and fortune to the people and places it’s most needed.