A friend’s Insta-story reminded me that March 30 this year was not only Good Friday, but also the beginning of the observance period for the Chinese tomb-sweeping festival known as Qingming (清明). The coincidence of two religious festivals, each revolving around different ways of honouring the deceased, struck me deeply. And so, I was drawn to discover how each of these groups would experience the same day in their distinct ways.
I have a junior college classmate who has invited her whole class down to her house to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month three years in a row. And every year I am amazed at the number of visitors that her family has thrown the doors wide open to – extended family from all walks of life, and ex-classmates and future schoolmates among others.
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.
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.
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.
An tight, expectant buzz hung over Telok Ayer Street this New Year’s afternoon–which also happened to be the eleventh day of the eleventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar and the date on which the newly-refurbished Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor was to be opened to the public. The 170-year-old monument, having recently been renamed and having completed her facelift in December, seemed to take on a regal demeanour that day as she sat before the crowds above a table laden with offerings to numerous deities. Her door, festooned with an opulent red ribbon, was closed, only to be opened on very special occassions. Taoist priests in their flowing blue and black robes mingled with and slid in between special guests in white Chinese tops as well as ordinary on-lookers, engaged in a frenzy of activity as greetings and signals were exchanged before the start of the temple’s official consecration to the fiftieth anniversary of modern Singapore’s independence.
At the emcees’ announcement of the first phase of the ceremony, there was a collective perking-up of the assembly. Spectators (and some priests) brandishing cameras and smartphones surged towards the other end of the street as a cacophony of cymbals and drums erupted onto the road. Lions in bright hues of yellow, green and orange made a collective series of bows to the side gates before bounding away with wild energy, while a red-and-white dragon followed with vigorous cartwheels in his never-ending chase of his pearl. Soon after, they stilled, to make way for the procession of priests standing at attention to perform the rites that would bestow good luck upon the temple.
Solemnly, silently, the procession of priests and musicians in their colourful, resplendent garments proceeded to the end of the road where the lion dancers had gone. At an almost imperceptible signal they started their slow march towards the main gate of the temple, each step as measured as the next. Seeing them, next to the on-lookers with all their vestiges of modernity, made me consciously aware of the mingling of old and new, tradition and progress, that underpins the essence of this island and yet continues to give strength to the veins of Chinese tradition that seemed to run through the members of the procession that day.
The procession reached the main gate of the temple. A taut silence ensued. With the same wordless grace, the members of the procession spread out as the five most senior priests in purple took their positions before the table of offerings. The musicians intoned a throaty chant to the beat of metal cymbals and a muyu (‘wooden fish’, a Chinese percussion instrument). The crowd watched breathlessly, some with palms placed together before their faces in deep reverence. The most eminent priests, denoted by the golden ornaments on their headpieces, raised long thick joss sticks billowing with smoke before their faces in moments of intense devotion, before leading the others in bowing and standing again in a show of respect to the gods. One of the priests received a rectangular wooden board from an attendant and held it out in front of him, his sleeves billowing on either side of him like the wings of a bird. He then proceeded to bless the temple in circular, waltzing steps. Perhaps, I thought, he was waltzing for the deities themselves.
Towards the end of the ceremony, a petition written on yellow paper and wrapped around a metal frame was burnt under the solemn gazes of the senior priests, sending wishes for prosperity skywards. I left that afternoon with the chorus of the procession ringing in my ears, and the pulse of tradition and religion brought alive by the ceremony feeling it was still pounding through my heart.