The burning boat

14 10 2014

One evening a year, a burning boat lights up the dark and forgotten shores of Kampong Wak Hassan. The fire burns quickly, its flames completely consuming the boat ‘s paper shell and its wooden frame in a matter of minutes, sending nine divine beings on a journey to their celestial abodes. The journey brings the beings’ annual nine-day sojourn into the human world to a close and is one that follows a ritual that brings much colour to the shores of Singapore.

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It isn’t only at Kampong Wak Hassan that we see this send-off in Singapore, it is also seen at several waterfront locations across the island. The boat burning act comes at the end of the Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷) or the Nine Emperor Gods festival, a festival that commemorates the visit of the nine stellar gods – the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible). The festival begins with the gods being invited to earth and ends with their journey home on the ninth day.

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The Taoist festival is celebrated with much fervour by the devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, especially so in southern Chinese immigrant communities in several parts of Thailand and Malaysia. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet throughout the festival, which falls on the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, starting on the festival’s eve.  It would once have been common during the festival to observe mediums, many sporting piercings through various parts of the face and on the body, going into a trance. What I especially recall from my younger days was the sight of mediums swords in hand performing acts of self-flagellation, as well as hearing the sounds of cracking whips, all of which over the years seem to have become less common.

A medium sporting a peircing – seen in 1979 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

More information on the festival itself is to be found in a Singapore Infopedia article. The article identifies twelve temples in Singapore at which the festival is observed, one of which is the Tou Mu Kung temple at Upper Serangoon Road. Thought to be the first in Singapore at which the festival was celebrated, the temple’s festival observance culminates these days in a send-off for the gods at Pulau Punggol Timor, a man-made island off the much altered Seletar coastline that is accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.

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The ceremony at Wak Hassan, is that celebrated by the Kew Ong Yah temple, which has its origins in Chong Pang Village – it was originally located just stone’s throw away from the landmark Sultan Theatre. Now housed within the Chong Pang Combined temple in Yishun, the temple also commemorates the occasion with much colour, sending the gods off at the seawall of what was a former village by the sea. It was the temple’s ceremony that I found myself at on the evening of 2nd October, the the ninth day of the ninth month this year.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

There was already much anticipation in the air when I arrived at 9 pm, more than an hour before the procession was to arrive. A small crowd, made up of many extended families, had already gathered and the chatter included the excited voices of the many children in the crowd. While there was a hint of a sea breeze, it was a sticky evening and many sought relief from the strategically positioned ice-cream vendor and the ice-cream wielding crowd brought an almost festive like atmosphere that is not often seen in the area.

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The anticipation seemed to grow with the passing minutes. A commotion announced the arrival of the two paper boats that were to be used in the ritual. The first, with the head of a dragon, was one that was to be set alight on the beach in which offerings were to be placed. The second, was to carry the gods out to sea and set alight – the flames transporting the gods to the heavens. The presence of the boats, which were moved down to the beach, also provided the signal that arrival of the of the procession of the gods and their paraphernalia was imminent, prompting a frenzy of joss stick lighting among the devotees in the crowd.

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A thunder of drums heralded the arrival of the gods. Representations of the nine gods, masked men dressed in an almost gaudy fashion, circled the roundabout at the end of Sembawang Road in an unsteady dance before the procession moved down to the seawall.  A violently swaying sedan chair brought in the sacred urn. The urn is where the spirits of the gods are carried and the chair is swung from side to side by its bearers as a sign the divine presence. Among those making their way down to the seawall with the procession was Mr K Shanmugam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law and an MP for Nee Soon GRC, who takes part regularly in the Kew Ong Yah temple’s Nine Emperor Gods festival celebrations.

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It was close to midnight when a semi-melodious chant in Hokkien rose above the gentle sounds of the waves of the nearby sea – the chants prayers sung, almost, by a Taoist priest. Once the prayers were completed, it was time for the party of temple officials and the Minister to wet launch the boat carrying the gods, setting it alight in the process, after which attention was turned to the second boat. Fanned by the strengthening sea breeze, the flames seemed in both cases to leap off the burning boat, offering onlookers such as myself, quite a sight to behold. It was past midnight when it was all over, and as quickly as the fire consumed the boats, the crowd dispersed.

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Together with the accompanying ceremony, the fiery end makes the send-off ceremony one of more colourful religious rituals that is seen today in Singapore. The setting for the send-off by the sea provides a connection to who we are and to where we came from; the sea being a naturally where we might, in the past, have sought a connection with the beliefs of our forefathers, many whom arrived here from the coastal communities of Southeast Asia, India and China. Now one of the few religious rituals celebrated by the sea that still is quite visible, the festival serves to connect us with a shore we are very quickly losing sight of. The shore that made us who we were is today a shore that has turned us into who we are not.

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Remnants of a lost forest

9 10 2014

The first Sunday in October had me paddling a kayak through what turned out to be a surprisingly area of mangroves in a part of Singapore where nature has long abandoned. Described by the Nature Society (Singapore) as “the most extensive mangrove forest in the southern coastline of mainland Singapore”, the mangroves line the banks of a stretch of Sungei Pandan where the industrial march that has all but conquered Singapore’s once wild southwest is quite clearly evident.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

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The Sungei Pandan mangroves, found along the stretch of river that lies between the Pandan Tidal Gates and the Sungei Pandan Bridge, is perhaps the last remnants of the lush mangrove forest that had once lined much of the banks of the Pandan and Jurong Rivers that had been offered protection as the Pandan Forest Reserve. The reserve covered an area of 542 acres or 219 ha. in 1966 and may have covered an even larger area before that – a newspaper article from 1928 had put the area of the reserve at 639 acres or 259 ha. and had been one of 15 forest areas that was protected under the Forest Ordinance enacted in 1908, and later, the 1951 Nature Reserves Ordinance.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

The death knell for the mangrove reserve was sounded in the 1960s when land was needed for the expansion of Jurong Industrial Estate. An amendment to the Nature Reserves Ordinance in 1966 saw it lose the 186 acres (75 ha.) on the west bank of Jurong River and that was filled up to create much needed land for the fast expanding industrial zone. The reserve was to lose its status altogether in 1968 when a further amendment to the Ordinance removed the reserve from its schedule of protected forest areas to allow what was described as the “rapid growth of Jurong Industrial Estate”.

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The mangrove forest, besides being home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, also hosted human inhabitants, many of whom were fishermen who depended on cast net prawn farming in the vicinity of the river mouths and the islands for a livelihood. One of the isolated villages that was found at the edge of the watery forest, was Kampong Teban, described in an article from The Singapore Free Press dated 13 January 1958 as “a village of 135 people living in 27 cottages, some built on stilts over the ooze and slime on the river bank”. The villagers were to see their lives altered by developments n the early 1960s, when part of the area was given to prawn farming.

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

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The original mouth of Sungei Pandan, was where the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club (RSYC), then the Royal Singapore Yacht Club, moved its premises to, on land reclaimed from the mangroves, in 1965. The club, which traces its origins to 1826, moved in 1999 sometime after it lost its seafront to land reclamation. Its former clubhouse is now occupied by the Singapore Rowing Association – close to where the kayaking trip started.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The start point for the kayak trip.

The start point for the kayak trip.

Paddling through the greenery offered by the mangroves, nipah palms and mangrove ferns, the sounds of tree lizards and birds were most evident. Beyond the distinct calls belonging to the ashy tailorbird and the pied fantail – birds that often are heard before they are seen, the likes of grey and striated herons, and white-bellied sea eagles gave their presence away flying overhead. A special treat came in the form of an Asian paradise flycather – a particularly beautiful avian resident of the watery forest, dancing across the mangrove branches. Besides the lizards and the birds, the forest is also plays host to fauna such as mud lobsters, mudskippers, horseshoe crabs, mangrove snails and the dog-faced water snake.

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher...

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher…

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A grey heron in flight.

A grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

The Sungei Pandan mangroves is all that remains of a once rich mangrove forest. What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan tells us is that the area in which it is situated has been designated as a park space. It would be nice to see that the mangroves remain untouched, not just to remind us of the lost forest, but more importantly to protect an area that despite its location and size, is a joyously green space teeming with life.

Minister of State Desmond Lee - an avid bird watcher.

One of the kayakers was Minister of State Desmond Lee, who is an avid bird watcher.

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Parting glances, Church of St. Alphonsus

8 10 2014

In Singapore, the familiar becomes unfamiliar in the blink of an eye. The end of September brought with it more than a fair share of goodbyes to places some of us have grown attached to. One that was especially hard to say goodbye to was a place I have grown especially fond of through my interactions with it over a period of almost half a century, the Church of St. Alphonsus, which closed at the end of September for redevelopment.

A final prayer outside the locked gates of the closed church the morning after.

A final prayer outside the locked gates of the closed church the morning after.

In the case of St. Alphonsus, popularly known as Novena Church, it isn’t of course a complete goodbye. The building that housed the church, very recognisable through its distinctive triple-arc pediment – a landmark along Thomson Road, will not be torn down as it has been gazetted for conservation in 2011. It will however, be dominated by a much larger structure once the redevelopment is complete – that being a new and much larger church building that will come up in place of the site occupied by St. Clement’s Pastoral Centre and another very recognisable structure, the church’s bell tower.

A parting glance ...

A parting glance …

Better known perhaps for the devotional services it holds through the course of the day every Saturday that brings a crowd to the area – the Novena sessions that gives the church and the area (including an MRT station) their names, the church came into being on its current site in May 1950, when it was consecrated as the new Redemptorist chapel – the order having moved from a site down the road currently occupied by Thomson Medical Centre at which it started the Novena services after the war in 1945.

The chapel as it had originally looked in 1950 (Novena Church website).

The building as we know it today, took on its current form in the latter half of the 1950s. A bell tower and the Redemptorist Residence was added in 1956 and the pediment and a circular stained glass panel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was added in 1959.

The circular stained glass panel seen through the closed gates of the church.

The circular stained glass panel seen through the closed gates of the church.

The bell tower.

The bell tower.

The weekly services is what gives the area its flavour, when huge crowds descend on the area every Saturday, crowds that will certainly be missed during the two-year redevelopment period when Novena services are held instead in the Church of Risen Christ in Toa Payoh. I remember it being particularly lively at the end of the 1960s and perhaps the early 1970s – when crowds thronged the sidewalks down the slope from the church where many food vendors would be found.

An aerial view showing the church with its new pediment and the Redemptorist Residence in 1959 (Novena Church website).

Also missed will be the burst of colour that the area sees once a year over the first weekend in September, when the church’s façade is very brightly decorated with a flowers for the annual Novena procession, although the scale of the decorations have become more modest in its latter years. The procession, the 61st of which was held in September, sees crowds in excess of 10,000 spilling into the open car park space that is arrange on two terraces – a space that will be largely altered due to the construction of an underground car park.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

Decorations during the annual procession in 1987.

The church held its last services over the weekend of the 27th and 28th September and its grilled gates were closed following the last service. Besides hosting Novena services, the Church of the Risen Christ will also host weekday masses. Sunday masses will during the period of closure be held at St. Joseph’s Institution Junior in Essex Road. More information can be found at the Novena Church website.

Silent corridors at the Redemptorist Residence the morning after.

Silent corridors at the Redemptorist Residence the morning after.


Parting glances …

The morning after

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The Bell Tower

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The Church

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The Redemptorist Residence and St. Clement’s Pastoral Centre

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The last Novena

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The last procession and processions past

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The three last stages of Singapore

17 09 2014

A structure that often featured in the rural landscape during the days of my childhood, was the wayang stage. Constructed usually out of wood, the wayang stage was often found in the vicinity of a rural Chinese community’s temple and together with the temple, such stages became focal points for the village folk during important festive celebrations.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

The festivals often required that the gods be kept amused. Entertainment often took the form of the retelling of traditional tales through the strained voices of garishly dressed performers with gaudily painted faces, all of which played out on the stage, attracting not just the gods but also many non- celestial beings.

A permanent wayang stage in Tuas, 1978 (source: Ronni Pinsler / http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Interest in the tradition, wayangs  – as the various genres of Chinese opera practiced here have come to be referred to, has long since dwindled and have largely been replaced by entertainment forms that reflect the national desire to abandon age-old practices. But this isn’t quite what is to blame for the disappearance of the (permanent) wayang stage. The displacement the rural world by urban townships and the dispersion of the members of the rural communities in the process, meant that many of the temples equipped with such stages have had to vacate their once generous spaces. The squeeze put on new spaces has made it less practical to have occasionally utilised permanent stages on the temples’ premises these days and today, only there are only a handful of such stages that can be found in Singapore.

Another permanent structure that was located in a village in Choa Chu Kang (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The brightly coloured century-old stage at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple along Balestier Road, would be one that many would have noticed. The temple is one that has long been a very recognisable part of the road’s landscape having been established as far back as 1847. An article in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Skyline gives us the background on the temple as well as on the wayang stage:

Historically, Balestier had been a swampy area infested with tigers and malarial mosquitoes. In a bid to ward off these dangers, Chinese Hokkien immigrants built the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple in 1847, asking deity Tua Pek Kong for protection. Years later, Tan Boon Liat, grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, funded the creation of a free-standing wayang (theatrical performance) stage in 1906.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong's with a performance on the wayang stage.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong’s with a performance on the wayang stage.

A second permanent stage, is one found in a less obvious location, well hidden deep inside a private housing estate in Ulu Pandan. The concrete world that now dominates the area was where the Chua or Tua Kang Lai village had once been spread across at which the Tan Kong Tian temple, to which the stage belongs to, was established at the turn of the last century. The stage, built together with the current temple’s building in 1919, based on information at the Beokeng.com site, was rather interestingly also used as a classroom when a school, Li Qun, was setup in 1927:

Tan Kong Tian Temple (yuan fu dian) was founded in 1904 in the old village Tua Kan Lai, which means ‘near the Big Canal ( Sungei Ulu Pandan)’, and for this reason, Tan Kong Tian is also known as Tua Kang Lai Temple. Majority of Tua Kan Lai’s residents go by the surname Chua, which gave rise to another name Chua Village Temple.

The statue of Dong Gong Zhenren was brought over from Jin Fu Dian temple in Anxi county of Fujian province. The temple was rebuilt in 1919 with a opera stage, which was also used as classroom for Li Qun School setup in 1927. The school was closed in 1980 but the stage is still standing today beside the temple.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The two, are the last to be found on Singapore’s main island. A third is found at the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin. The three, now serve as a reminder, not only of  tradition we are fast losing, but also of a time and a way of life that has long passed us.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

The wayang stage in Pulau Ubin.





The dragon comes alive for Mid-Autumn

9 09 2014

The Dragon has been brought to life for the third time this year, being fired up this time around for an international gathering of clay artists in Singapore for the International Chawan Exposition. The 16th edition of the exposition is being held in Singapore from 6 to 14 September 2014 and includes a wood firing event from 8 to 10 September at the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln.

Making offerings to the kiln god at the start of the firing.

Making offerings to the kiln god to mark the start of the firing.

The firing event, the opening of which coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival last evening, is open to the public on 9 and 10 September. More information on the International Chawan Exposition can be found at http://www.chawanexpo.com/singapore.html. More information on the kiln and its history can be found in some of my previous posts on Thow Kwang.

More photographs from last evening’s opening:

The packed kiln.

The packed kiln.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

The gathering of artists with Mr Ong Yew Huat, Chairman of the National Heritage Board.

Lighting the fire.

Lighting the fire.

The initial flames ... the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

The initial flames … the fire is fed slowly to allow a gradual build up of temperature.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

The firing is being held for the 16th edition of the International Chawan Expo.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.





Strange Horizons: Past, present and the probable future

14 08 2014

One of the last untouched islands of Singapore, Pulau Jong, is seen with the first to be developed for industrial use, Pulau Bukom Besar (on the right), and its smaller neighbour Pulau Bukom Kechil – a juxtaposition perhaps of past, present, and perhaps the probable future.

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Pulau Bukom Besar’s development goes back to the 1890s when Shell established a kerosene storage facility on the island, then deemed a safe distance away from the main island of Singapore, outside the then port limits. The age of industrialisation in Singapore brought with it the refinery that Shell built – which heralded the start of Singapore involvement with the oil refining business, in 1961. The expansion into Pulau Bukom Kechil began in the 1970s. More on this can be found on a previous post: Snake Island at dawn through the darkness of the storm.

Sadly for Pulau Jong and its large fringing reef, a 2013 Land Use Plan seems to show that future plans could involve its absorption into a larger land mass through reclamation, joining it with the islands of Pulau Sebarok to its southeast and the enlarged Pulau Semakau (now Singapore’s offshore landfill) to its southwest.





The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa

7 08 2014

Unlike its better known northern companion, the isle of Peace and Tranquility, Sentosa, the island of Pulau Tekukor is one that rarely gets a mention. Named in Malay after the rather benign spotted-neck dove – tekukur (as it is spelt today) is derived from the sound the bird makes, the name, so it seems, masks quite a sinister past.

A tekukur in flight.

A tekukur in flight.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island - hear stories of its past when it was known as Pulau Penyabong and its association with the origins of the former name of Sentosa, Pulau Blakang Mati.

Pulau Tekukor or Dove Island.

If one of the forgotten stories of our shores are to be believed, a curse was said to have been placed on Pulau Tekukor and despite the island’s welcoming sandy beaches, the island is one that unlike its immediate neighbours, has never been inhabited. The curse, one that left its soil incapable of supporting any useful plant life as well as leaving it without a source of freshwater, as the story goes, is a result of the island’s violent past, a past that does provide a possible explanation as to how the nearby island of Sentosa acquired its mysterious previous name,  Pulau Blakang Mati (the island of death at the back).

The eastern end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground.

The paradise end of Sentosa today with Terumbu Buran in the foreground, now an isle for the living.

Pulau Tekukor was once itself, known by another name, Pulau Penyabong. Penyabung (as penyabong is spelt today), as is used in more recent times, has connotations of bloody confrontations, having been associated with the cruel but once popular sport of cockfighting. The fights, however, that were thought to have taken place on the island, so that blood not stain the soils of the more sacredly held islands, involved creatures not of the feathered kind. Pitting keris wielding Malay and Bugis warriors of the old world, these confrontations were duels to the death, for which the reward for the vanquished, was a final journey to be buried on an island that now for some, does seem like paradise on earth.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters' Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Another view of Tekukor a.k.a. Penyabong, Sisters’ Islands can be seen to its south-west. The channel on the west of the island, Sisters Fairway is also known as Selat Tanjong Hakim.

Besides the curiously named Pulau Blakang Mati, another name that is thought to be linked to the bloody battles, is Selat Tanjong Hakim (now more commonly referred to Sisters’ Fairway in navigation charts). Hakim being the Malay word for judge – the selat or strait west of Penyabong, would have watched over the duels, in the same way a judge might have presided over the fights.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

Another view of the former Pulau Blakang Mati.

As Pulau Tekukor, the island became a commercial explosives storage facility for the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) in the 1980s- after the island was enlarged by reclamation of its western shores. There was also a proposal to turn it into a sanctuary for long-tailed macaques that surfaced in the mid 2000s that did not take off and as of today, there are no known plans for the island and the island remains as mysterious as it long has been.

The sandy beaches and 'bloodstained' cliff faces of Tekukor.

The sandy beaches and ‘bloodstained’ cliff faces of Tekukor.

In its cliff faces that are still seen today – stained by the blood of the fallen, there perhaps is the only reminder of the story of the island; a tale that, as with the many stories from our islands handed down through the generations telling us of a past we long have discarded, may never again be told.








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