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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A sneak peek at NDP 2014

11 07 2014

I got an opportunity to have a sneak peek at what this year’s National Day Parade (NDP) had to offer at a rehearsal held on Saturday, taking a few photographs that accompany this post. The rehearsal was held a week before the series of rehearsals that Primary 5 students will attend as part of the National Education (NE) Show programme  starting on 12 July 2014, in the lead-up to the actual parade, all of which offers a glimpse of what the highly anticipated parade has to offer.

Always something to look forward to - the fireworks sign-off.

Always something to look forward to – the fireworks sign-off.

The audience seen as the lights come on ...

The audience seen as the lights come on …

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Beyond the always spectacular signature show of fireworks that now sign all NDPs off, the parade and ceremony, the flypast and the medley of National songs, this year’s NDP will see the introduction of a Military Tattoo, which for the first time, will open the Parade and Ceremony. The 7-minute band display, will involve some 164 personnel, including drummers from the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) who will perform together with members of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) Band, the Silent Precision Drill Squad (SPDS), the National Cadet Corp (NCC) Band, and the National Police Cadet Corp (NPCC) Band.

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The Parade and Ceremony itself, entitled “A Parade with a Heart”, has been aligned with this year’s NDP theme, “Our People, Our Home” and consists of five Heartbeats. The five moments will honour the organisations that have contributed in the defence, social and economic areas, pay tribute to our pioneers, get the audience singing in a sing-along of Singapore songs, celebrate the family and showcase the SAF and Home team’s capabilities in the Dynamic Defence Display.

The Leopard 2 MBT will feature in the Dynamic Display segment.

The Leopard 2-SG Main Battle Tank will feature in the Dynamic Display segment.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Surface-to-Air PYTHON-5 and DERBY-Short Range (SPYDER-SR) ground-based air defence system - another asset the audience will see during the Dynamic Display.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Surface-to-Air
PYTHON-5 and DERBY-Short Range (SPYDER-SR) ground-based air defence
system – another asset the audience will see during the Dynamic Display.

A navy RHIB during practice for the Dynamic DIsplay Segment.

A navy RHIB during practice for the Dynamic Display Segment.

Always something to look forward to at the NDP, are the so-called funpacks, which contain both giveaways as well as items for use during the parade itself. This year’s very brightly coloured funpacks were designed by a group of 15 students from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central’s School of Design and Media. Included in the funpacks are button badges – the result of the NDP 2014 Funpack Print Design Contest from which nine designs were chosen to be printed into button badges. Among the winning entries is one from 13 year-old Ong Zheng Jie Joshua, which centres on a tree that symbolizes the strong and prosperous Singapore built by our ancestors.

Funpack distribution.

Funpack distribution.

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The parade this year features some 35 marching contingents, with four Guard-Of-Honour (GOH) contingents, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Colours Party, the Combined Band and 29 other contingents from the SAF, Home Team, uniformed groups as well as social and economic organisations. Numbering some 2,000 participants, the parade will be the largest Parade & Ceremony segment ever held at the Floating Platform.

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The faces of Chingay 2013

24 02 2013

If anyone reading this appears in any of the photographs below (or in this album), I would be pleased to extend a higher resolution copy of the photograph to you if you can drop me an email.


Photographs from what was certainly a feast for the senses, Chingay 2013, which was held at the F1 Pit Building over two evenings on 22 and 23 February 2013. The annual event, touted as “Asia’s Grandest Street Parade”  is organised the People’s Association. In its current incarnation, Singapore’s Chingay was conceived as a street parade to celebrate the Chinese New Year in 1973 in the wake of the ban on the tradition of letting off fireworks, the parade has evolved over the years into the spectacular celebration of Singapore’s rich multi-ethnic mix and includes participants from many other countries. The event wouldn’t have been a success if it wasn’t also for the efforts of many participants and volunteers, to whom this post is dedicated to:

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The Merlion at 40

18 09 2012

A few more photographs of the Merlion during its 40th birthday celebrations, taken on the last evening of the light, sound and pyrotechnic display, Merlion & I: An Inspiring Journey on 16 September 2012. More information on the event can be found on my previous post ‘Looking sexy at 40‘.





Looking sexy at 40

13 09 2012

A Singapore icon that has for much of its life been an instantly recognisable one is the Merlion, a creature which, much like Singapore, combines the best of two worlds. Conceptualised in the early 1970s for use in the promotion of tourism in what was a Singapore that was beginning to find its feet as an independent nation, the Merlion has become much more than that, becoming a well-loved symbol of Singapore and perhaps one that can be seen to have heralded the remaking of Singapore into what it is today.

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore’s development.

Originally located at the mouth of the Singapore River, the Merlion was certainly one that was much photographed, including serving as a backdrop for the bevy of beauties that graced our shores during the Miss Universe pageant that Singapore hosted in 1987. And as it celebrates it 40th birthday, having been unveiled by Singapore’s elder statesman and first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, on 15 September 1972, the Merlion provides an opportunity for Singaporeans to celebrate it and be photographed in a new light. A 7 minute light, sound and pyrotechnic show, Merlion & I: An Inspiring Journey, presented jointly by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and event sponsor Far East Organization (FEO), will come on six times a night up until 16 September 2012 (Sunday). The show which was launched yesterday evening includes spectacular 3D projections on the icon, fresh from a 2 month long makeover, as well as a musical segment, and a video segment shown on a 8m by 4m LED screen set on a floating pontoon facing the Merlion, which includes a nostalgic element in the form of photographs of past encounters both Singaporeans and visitors have had with the Merlion over its 40 years.

A look back: the Merlion at its original location at the mouth of the river in 1976.

The music and lyrics of An Inspiring Journey is the work of music director, Mr Kenn Chua, who has been behind concerts for local artistes such as Corinne May, Kit Chan and Stefanie Sun. The song is performed by Mr Jim Lim, a member of the popular local group Dreamz FM (a MTV version of the song has also been recorded by Ms Serene Koong). The light projections are the work of Mr Andrew Gardner who has worked extensively in South East Asia, and is behind the lighting of Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. The show will also see an energetic street dance, choreographed by Mr Ryan Tan to accompany the song. Showtimes (13 to 16 September) are 7:15pm, 7:45pm, 8:30pm, 9:15pm, 10.00pm and 10:30pm. For more information, do visit YourSingapore.com.

Photographs from the launch of the Merlion’s 40th Birthday Celebrations

The celebrations are launched ….

There was also a birthday cake in the shape of the Merlion.








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