‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.
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.
After my previous discovery of St Joseph’s Church, I yearned to be able to have a glimpse of the inside. At the same time, there was something impressively ornate about the building that almost deterred me from going in – a sense, I’d say, that I might be intruding on something sacred. But on a rainy Thursday I found myself standing outside a side door left ajar that led into the main sanctuary. I carefully shook my umbrella dry on the steps outside (I was too afraid of accidentally dirtying the floor), and walked in.
Immediately, I found myself swallowed by a vast quiet. The rain that had gotten onto my bag and clothes suddenly seemed immaterial, and I was seized by a burst of awe. Stretching before me were rows of pews of deep, dark polished wood that culminated in a massive alcove at the front of the hall, from which gazed the likenesses of various saints from within altars or the fronts of stained-glass windows. There were no services or Mass at the time I arrived, but instead quiet human activity bubbled from a group of church members putting up wreaths next to the windows. A solitary man knelt before a small golden side altar, silently crossing himself. Gingerly, I walked down the length of hall, fearful to touch anything or to go too near the icons of the Virgin Mary nearer the front. Though dark rain clouds were gathering outside the church, the area felt suffused with a regal levity. Perhaps it was the tall domed ceiling, or the flowing intricate architecture adorning the windows, or the images of saints that appeared to peer down on worshippers from their perches in nooks set within the pillars. In spite of myself, I felt a massive sense of reverence.
Later that day I was warned by a gruff caretaker not to ‘take too many photos’, and my own timidity has also made me refrain from taking as many as I’d normally have liked. Part of me was bursting with questions – about the architecture, the history of the church, and the people that still fill its halls now and then. But the dignity of the building arrested me; a dignity untarnished by its location just a stone’s throw away from a cluster of bustling shopping malls. For now, I will be content to sit and look around me, breathing in the dust of history and enjoying its quiet nobility.
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.