The flicker of tradition

21 04 2014

It is in the flicker of the sea of candlelight that illuminates the compound of the Church of St. Joseph in Victoria Street, that we see a side of Singapore that seems lost to us, one that lies buried behind the narrow definitions that we now use to define the Singapore of today.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

The flicker is of an annual procession, part of the commemoration of Holy Week, that borrows from the Portuguese tradition – the church was established by the Portuguese missionaries and came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Diocese of Macau until as recently as 1981. And, it is in its very visible commemoration that we are made aware of one of the many cultural and religious influences that has given Singapore as a whole, a very unique flavour.

Participants in the procession fill the compound of the church in anticipation of the procession.

Participants in the procession gather outside the church in anticipation of the procession.

The procession comes at the end of a Good Friday service during which the Passion of Christ is commemorated through the Stations of the Cross, following which the crucifixion and the lowering of the body of Chirst  is reenacted. During the procession, a bier carrying the life-sized representation of the body of Christ is carried around the church, followed by a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and the clergy and congregation as well as the many who have gathered holding candles outside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The procession attracts many thousands of Catholics each year, and beside the 1500 or so who make their way into the church, and the many more who gather inside the compound, the crowd does also spill over to Queen Street and Waterloo Centre, the second floor of which does provide an excellent vantage point. It was on Queen Street, that we did once see many candle vendors, hawking long candles – some taller than the height of a person which had to be supported by a backbone of wood, adding to the colour of the occasion.

The bier being carried during the procession.

The bier being carried during the procession.

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

The procession, as well as the commemoration of Holy Week in this manner in Singapore, is thought to have had its origins in the early days of the church, which was originally established in the 1850s. It is one of several such similar commemorations that is seen across Asia where the religious influences of the Portuguese remain strong, such as in Macau and close-by in Malacca, which was a former Portuguese colony and where many of the Portuguese Eurasian community found in Singapore have their roots in. The Church of St. Joseph, which at some point was referred to as the Portuguese church,  is perhaps the last bastion for a community that is rich in tradition and one of the many that has made Singapore what it is today.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Archbishop William Goh.

Archbishop William Goh, followed by members of the clergy.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the 'Veil of Veronica'.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the ‘Veil of Veronica’.

Flower girls.

Flower girls.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

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Colours of April: The Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram

13 04 2014

A colourful Sembawang tradition that goes back to the days of the Naval Base, is the commemoration of the Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. While much of the landscape through which the procession of kavadis that is associated with the festival has been altered by the move of the temple away from its original premises with its route not only changed, but also shortened over the years; it is good to see that it is celebrated with as much fervour as it was when my first encounters with it back in the 1980s.

A view through a kavadi.

A view through a kavadi at today’s Panguni Uthitam.

This route of the procession of this year’s festival, which is celebrated on the full moon of the month of Panguni, took devotees from the empty plot of land off Canberra Drive , down Canberra Lane and Canberra Link to the temple’s premises at Yishun Industrial Park A. More information on the festival and previous Panguni Uthiram celebrations can be found in several previous posts and at the temple’s website:

A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise.

A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise.

The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made.

The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made.

Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude.

Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude.

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More photographs from Panguni Uthiram 2014

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Faces of Thaipusam 2014

18 01 2014

Photographs from this year’s Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The festival, which is commemorated by the southern Indian community in both Malaysia and Singapore is celebrated with much zeal and passion bringing much life and colour to the streets of a Singapore. In Singapore, the festival involves a procession of kavadi bearing devotees down a 4 kilometre route from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Chettiars’ Temple) at Tank Road, which starts at midnight on Thaipusam and continues through much of the day and into the late evening. More on the festival and photographs taken at previous Thaipusam celebrations, can be found in several posts I have previously put up:

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Raising the flag on Guru Nanak Jayanti

18 11 2013

The Sikh holy day of Guru Nanak Jayanti commemorating the birth anniversary of the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, is celebrated by the Sikh community during the full moon in the month of Kartik. This year’s celebration took place on 17 November and I had the opportunity to observe the festivities at the Sikh temple in Yishun, the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun.

The commemoration of festivities at gudwaras or Sikh temples often sees the appearance of sword wielding armed guards who represent the Five Beloved Ones.

The commemoration of festivities at gurdwaras or Sikh temples often sees the appearance of sword wielding armed guards who represent the Five Beloved Ones.

The festival, is said to be one of the most sacred in the Sikh religion. As with all festivals that is celebrated in the Sikh religion, it is one that is involves the entire community, involving prayers offered in the morning, the singing of hymns and the sharing of a meal at the gurdwara or Sikh temple.

Inside the gudwara or prayer hall.

The Darbar Sahib or prayer hall.

The highlight of yesterday’s celebration at the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun, was the raising of a new flag. The flag, the sacred Sikh religious flag, known as the Nishan Sahib, is traditionally flown on a tall flagpole outside the gurdwara. This serves to identify the location of the gurdwara as it is flown in such a manner that it can be seen from afar.

Inside the prayer hall or Darbar Sahib.

Inside the prayer hall or Darbar Sahib.

Sweet pudding is distributed after prayers.

Sweet pudding is distributed after prayers.

The five beloved ones at the flagpole.

The five beloved ones at the flagpole.

It was with much ceremony that the old flag is lowered and the new flag raised. With the community gathered around, together with five saffron robed sword wielding guards (who represent the Panj Pyaras or the five beloved ones) prominent at the base of the flagpole (and throughout the religious part of the observances), the flagpole is lowered so the the old flag can be removed and the the flagpole prepared to receive the new sacred flag by washing with water and milk. 

The lowering of the flagpole.

The lowering of the flagpole.

Washing the flagpole.

Washing the flagpole.

All hands to the flagpole.

All hands to the flagpole.

Milk is also used in the washing.

Milk is also used in the washing.

A new flag is attached.

A new flag is attached.

With the flagpole washed, the new flag is then attached to it and its is with much jubilation that the flagpole and the flag is then raised. Following the raising of the pole, members of the community stream around its base, placing flowers and offering prayers. The members of the community then head back up to the Darbar Sahib or prayer hall for the singing of hymns, with the morning’s festivities culminating in the sharing of a community meal – a practice that is central to all Sikh celebrations.

Raising of the new flag.

Raising of the new flag.

The new flag is raised.

The new flag is raised.

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Singing of hymns.

Singing of hymns.


About the Gurdwara Sahib Yishun:

The Gurdwara Sahib Yishun which opened on 27 August 1995 traces its origins to two gurdwaras located in Singapore north which merged when the land on which they stood was acquired for redevelopment. The two were the Gurdwara Sahib Guru Khalsa Sabha Sembawang (Sembawang Sikh Temple) and the Gurdwara Sahib Jalan Kayu, both of which are connected with the establishment of bases by the British military in the 1930s.

The Sembawang Sikh Temple had it origins in the British Naval Base, being set up in 1936 in the settlement outside the base which later became known as Chong Pang Village  to serve the Sikh community involved in the construction of the base, and later workers in the base as well as Sikh members of Naval Base Police (who has their barracks at View Road).

The Gurdwara Sahib Jalan Kayu, traces its origins to the Sikh community which came to the area to serve in the RAF Seletar Police Force who set up a temple in their barracks in the 1930s. The Gurdwara Sahib Jalan Kayu itself was set up in the village just outside the air base after the war in 1947 when the Police Force was disbanded.

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Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

The last place in Singapore to soak in the atmosphere of the festivities which accompany a religious festival in a setting most of us may not seen for a quarter of a century is Pulau Ubin, the last island off Singapore (save for Sentosa) which has a community of residents. It is in the remnants of a village close to the island’s jetty where a Chinese Taoist temple, the Tua Pek Kong temple (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) dedicated to the Earth Deity 土地公 (Tu Di Gong in Mandarin) who is also commonly referred to in Singapore as 大伯公 – Tua Pek Kong in Hokkien or Da Bo Gong in Mandarin, is found. It setting is very much one that is reminiscent of many of the rural Chinese villages which were common on the main island of Singapore up until the 1980s, with a village temple at its centre with a permanent Chinese Opera (referred to locally as “wayang”) stage often located across a clearing from it.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Colours painted by the setting sun - setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

Colours painted by the setting sun – setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

The temple plays host twice a year to a series of festivities which are held to commemorate two important Chinese festivals which the temple celebrates in a big way. The bigger of the two is the Tua Pek Kong festival, celebrated to commemorate the birthday of the Earth Deity around the 15th day of the 4th Chinese month, while the Hungry Ghost festival which is celebrated with an auction around the 15th day of the 7th month, is a relatively quieter affair.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

It is during both the festivals that the wayang stage sees use. Wayangs in the form of Teochew opera performed by the island’s Teochew Opera Troupe  (which I photographed at last year’s Hungry Ghosts Festival – click on this link for the post) based at the temple, are staged for the entertainment of the temple’s devotees (also for the visiting spirits in the case of the Hungry Ghost Festival)  providing a wonderful opportunity for Singaporean’s to revisit an almost forgotten tradition. In keeping up with the times, the stage also plays host to what perhaps is the new-age wayang – the getai (歌台), a somewhat kitsch (some even consider it crude) form of entertainment which by and large have replaced the wayangs of old during similar celebrations around Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage - getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage – getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

I had the opportunity to see the new wayang in action in the old village like setting provided by Pulau Ubin’s stage last evening. The getai was held on the last evening of the series of festivities held over six days from 23 to 28 May this year and saw a huge turnout  – boats worked like clockwork ferrying a steady stream of visitors to the temple and the festivities – which certainly made the atmosphere very festival like. Under the stars in in the comfort of the cool breeze, the audience had the seats provided already filled as the stage came alive with lights and action matched by the brilliant colours provided by the of rays of the setting sun.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

While I would not be one to admit to being a fan of getai, I will admit that the experience of watching the gaudily dressed stars of the song stage, entertain with song many which were could well be tunes of yesteryear, as well as converse and joke in Hokkien on a stage under the stars, was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was particularly heartening to see the large crowd – many who broke out into smiles and laughter as the evening entertainment progressed, enjoy themselves. The atmosphere was such that it did also seem to free both young and old from the distractions we have to much of in the modern world (I must have been the only one not taking a photograph or a video clip with a mobile device who was seen to be fiddling with my mobile phone).

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

The getai show which was hosted by Xu Qiong Fang (浒琼芳) and Wang Lei (王雷) saw a string of getai stars appear on stage. Not having admitted to being a fan, there is also no need for me to pretend to know who I was being entertained by. I did however recognise one of the stars from a previous experience watching getai under the Flyer. That was veteran entertainer Marcus Chin (陈建彬). I was able to identify the Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹) pairing, only through a comment left on my instagram post  by filmaker Royston Tan (the pair featured in a video he produced, “The Happy Dragon“, to promote Safe Sex) .

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also entertained - standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩 ), a young getai star from Johor.

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also sang – standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩), a young getai star from Johor.

A relatively more recently introduced  form of festival entertainment, the getai does in fact have a long enough tradition, having gained in popularity during the 1970s as interest in the traditional forms of entertainment such as the Chinese Opera and Puppet Shows was waning. On the evidence of the turnout, it does seem that, love it or hate it, it does have a following and being more adaptable than the more traditional street theatre, it certainly is here to stay.  It was nice to be out under the stars in a setting one can otherwise no longer find. It felt as if it was yesterday … almost. It would have been nice to see just one thing more – the mobile food vendors (particularly the bird’s nest drink and the steamed sweet corn seller) who never were very far away whenever the wayang came to town.

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

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Drunk and dancing on a Friday morning

19 05 2013

Coming from a somewhat sedate Singapore where, despite its rich multi-cultural make-up, religious and cultural celebrations are generally calm and controlled affairs, finding myself caught in one of the many colourful street celebrations that take place in the countries around is always an experience to remember. I was in Macau recently to catch not just one, but two of the larger celebrations that takes place on the streets of the former Portuguese colony around the month of May. The first, perhaps more of a calm and contemplative affair, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, takes place on 13 May every year. The second is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets. That, the feast of the Drunken Dragon, takes place every year on the 8th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month which fell on 17 May this year.

The feast of the Drunken Dragon is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets of Macau.

The feast of the Drunken Dragon is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets of Macau.

The Drunken Dragon Festival is definitely a spectacle for photographers.

The Drunken Dragon Festival is definitely a spectacle for photographers.

The festival, Tchoi Long Chit (醉龍節 or 醉龙节) – as it is spelled in Cantonese in Macau, would have its roots in neighbouring Zhongshan, Guangdong Province where it is thought to have been celebrated since the Song Dynasty and may have been celebrated in Macau since the reign of Emperor Kangxi during the Qing Dynasty based on information at the website of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) and is described in the following manner:

… a very strange festival if compared with the other major Chinese festivals. It dates from the misty past from the Kangxi Kingdom of the Qing Dynasty. Praying to the Buddha for help against a disastrous plague, villagers were carrying his statue when suddenly a giant python leaped out of the river on to the bank, blocking the way. A Buddhist monk slashed at the monster, cutting it into three pieces which were tossed into the river. 

The pieces writhed about and then, amid a great wind and thunder, they flew up into the sky. Miraculously, the people recovered from the plague and the turf which has been stained with the creature’s blood proved to be unusually fertile. Believing that they had been saved by a divine dragon, the people carved its image and at the annual festival when the Buddha is bathed they drank wildly and danced with the dragon.

The fishermen associations organize this festival, which start in the morning in the Kuan Tai Temple near S. Domingos Market (near Senado Square), where men perform a drunken dance with wooden heads and tails of a dragon. Then, they go on the direction of the Inner Harbour and pay a visit some shops and piers on the waterfront. At each stop they drink wine until they are not able to go on. All the participants and observers end the day with a great dinner.

Participants arriving at the Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, the starting point of the street celebration.

Participants arriving at the Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, the starting point of the street celebration.

Participants gather at the temple at around 8 in the morning.

Participants gather at the Kuan Tai Temple near Senado Square at around 8 in the morning.

Wooden head and tail sections of dragons lie in wait at the Kuan Tai Temple.

Wooden head and tail sections of dragons lie in wait at the Kuan Tai Temple.

A monk blessing offerings at the Kuan Tai Temple.

A monk blessing offerings at the Kuan Tai Temple.

The celebration in Macau of the “strange” festival sees participants start with prayers and blessings at the Sam Kai Vui Kun or Kuan Tai Temple – about half an hour before a ceremony proper is held in a tent in Senado Square at 9 am. It is at the temple where participants collect the two dragon pieces in pairs – at which many are already visibly intoxicated, downing cans of beer and blowing mouthfuls of the liquid into the air – making for a spectacle best observed up close as both observers and jostling photographers (and their equipment) risk getting a splashing from the alcohol laden spray and mist that is propelled into the air.

The celebrations are best observed close-up but be prepared to jostle with the frenzy of photographers eager to capture the best shots at the risk of getting their equipment wet and sticky.

The celebrations are best observed close-up but be prepared to jostle with the frenzy of photographers eager to capture the best shots at the risk of getting their equipment wet and sticky.

Prayers are also offered.

Prayers are also offered.

Participants collecting the dragon pieces.

Participants collecting the dragon pieces.

The participants and their dragons seek blessings at the temple.

The participants and their dragons seek blessings at the temple.

A participant offering a joss stick.

A participant offering a joss stick.

Participants downing cans of beer outside the Kuan Tai Temple.

Participants downing cans of beer outside the Kuan Tai Temple.

And spray mouthfuls of it into the air.

And spray mouthfuls of it into the air.

The ceremony in Senado Square is one at which the participants are introduced before lion dance lions have their eyes dotted to bring them to life after which the participants perform a dance ritual in a prelude to the drunken journey through the streets.

Participants being introduced during the ceremony.

Participants being introduced during the ceremony.

An introduction being made.

An introduction being made.

Red cloth is tied to the dragons.

Red cloth is tied to the dragons.

Lion dance lions await the eye-dotting ceremony which brings them to life.

Lion dance lions await the eye-dotting ceremony which brings them to life.

The eye-dotting ceremony.

The eye-dotting ceremony.

A jar of wine and wooden dragons for the ritual dance before the participants set off.

A jar of wine and wooden dragons for the ritual dance before the participants set off.

Participants performing a dance ritual.

Participants performing a dance ritual …

... before setting off ...

… before setting off …

At this point, the participants seem to already have difficulty keeping upright – that however does not stop them from getting organised before the journey through the cobblestone streets begins, the younger ones – some boys, lead the procession in a martial art inspired dance, wooden dragons in hand. Even on the move, the action does not stop – the men continue to down jars of wine, spraying some of the contents of the jars into the air. As they make their way, occasionally taking a wrong turn, they stop at shops where offerings placed on stools are left at the entrances, moving the dragons in a way that made it appear that they were greedily devouring what was left on the stools. The dragons enter the shops before continuing on their way – a dancing lion dance takes the place vacated as firecrackers are lit as those in the crowd put their hands over their ears in anticipation.

Even in a state of drunkennesssome organising has to be done.

Even in a state of drunkennesssome organising has to be done.

The participants set off ...

The participants set off …

A drummer accompanies the participants.

A drummer accompanies the participants.

The procession of participants in martial art inspired dance makes its way through the narrow streets off Senado Square.

The procession of participants in martial art inspired dance makes its way through the narrow streets off Senado Square.

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Stopping along at shops along the way outside which offerings are made.

Stopping along at shops along the way outside which offerings are made.

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A lion dance follows the participants.

A lion dance follows the participants.

I follow for a distance, reeking of not just of the sticky alcoholic residue a deposit of which was left on my skin, clothes and equipment but also of the mix of perspiration and rain which fell earlier that I was completely drenched in. After some three quarters of an hour running after the drunken men I decided to break away. Despite the sticky mess my equipment and I were in, I would have most willingly continued if it wasn’t for a gluttony motivated bus ride I wanted to make to Fernando’s in Hac Sa Beach in Coloane – after which the Tam Kong Festival celebrations in Coloane Village beckoned. The very unique way in which the festival is celebrated must count as one of my more memorable experiences and one which I certainly am thankful to have remained sober enough to have been able to observe.

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Mixed with the crowd of curious tourists and photographers are many locals who line the streets to observe the procession.

Mixed with the crowd of curious tourists and photographers are many locals who line the streets to observe the procession.

Information on the festival and its origins:

Drunken Dance (about the origins of the festival in Zhongshan)

Feast of Drunken Dragon (China Central Television – CCTV video report)

MGTO Calendar of Events





The Silver Chariot returns

26 03 2013

A set of photographs taken stop points along the procession route of the Silver Chariot. The procession takes place on the eve of the festival of Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram which is celebrated on the full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni. Since 1967, a kavadi procession, similar to that during the more well known Thaipusam festival, has taken place in the Sembawang area, organised by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. The temple was original established in the Naval Base off Canberra Road and moved to its current location at Yishun Industrial Park A in 1996. The chariot is a representation of the chariot in which Lord Murugan or Lord Balasubramaniar is believed to use on his annual visit to his devotees on Earth. The procession this year takes place along a new route starting at a vacant plot of land off Canberra Lane / Canberra Drive. Photographs of the preparations for kavadi bearers from the previous years as well as more information on the festival can be found on two of my previous posts: A lesser known Hindu festival with a Kavadi procession: Panguni Uthiram (2011) and The sun rises on a Sembawang tradition.

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