The men and boys behind many a lion dance performance are not just performers. Years of travelling round the island as a troupe and practicing together has made them a fraternity. And the end of the old year was a good time to cement that status.
Going to college was a significant change for me, and regrettably I let this blog lie fallow. Yet my new life experiences have exposed me to different audiences who would receive my original purpose – that of highlighting the lesser-seen and heard-of in this island city of mine. Continue reading
After my initial encounter with the sunbirds, I had the good fortune of viewing many more species of birds on a walk I made around my neighbourhood. First there were the elusive silhouettes of swifts winging high overhead, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. It took some walking before I suddenly spotted this spotted dove making its way about its daily business. With its drab brown feathers, it would have melted seamlessly into the pavement had I not noticed its sudden burst of frantic, bobbing movement. Though the signature owl-like hoots of its fellows could be heard in the distance, this dove seemed to be travelling alone. So often have I seen these birds foraging in pairs, serene and secure in each other’s company, that seeing one on its own seemed a little unnerving. Nevertheless, the sight of these peaceful animals never fails to bring me a certain measure of calmness.
Doves were another animal I had not seen in a very long time around the neigbourhood. The periodic appearance and disappearance of certain species of birds from the area I live in sometimes makes me think that my sightings of them must have symbolic significance. There are days where I gain much comfort from thinking on the symbolism of the wild animals I happen to stumble upon. While in the West doves are often associated with peace and love, they are symbols of fidelity and longevity in Chinese symbology – so much so that the staff that is typically presented to a septuagenarian in Chinese custom is known as a ‘dove-staff’. Either way, the dove is typically known for being a gentle, nurturing animal. In the light of the New Year, I thought, perhaps it was offering me a positive symbol of hope.
Another shape suddenly zipped past me, up into the canopy of a nearby tree. I craned my camera up to look, and immediately felt a shiver of joy. It was an Oriental magpie-robin: a species that has happily been brought back from the brink of extinction on the island. This one was a male, judging from his bolder plumage. He stopped barely long enough for me to take a picture before flying off again, landing on the edge of the roof of a nearby house and surveying his surroundings with a gutsy pride. As distinctive as this species might be (not being related very closely to either robins or magpies), it is not commonly found in any lexicon of cultural symbology. Given its remarkable jump back from the brink, I’d like to think that seeing one could be a reminder of persistence, and the promise that things will get better even as they seem to get worse.
Regardless of whether the appearance of different birds has any special meaning, I feel like there are still simple messages we can derive from Nature. It could be something as paradoxically simple and prosaic as just enjoying the time we have in the present. These birds live in the moment, never worrying much about their past or future, content to take things one day at a time. Perhaps it would be worth it to slow down once in a while, and listen carefully to the birdsong around us that is hidden in plain sight.
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.