The festive face of Ubin

15 05 2014

It is during two Taoist festivals celebrated in a big way by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), the Tua Pek Kong festival celebrated around Vesak Day in May, and the Hungry Ghosts Festival during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, that the somewhat sleepy island takes on a festive air.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The island, particularly during the Tua Pek Kong festival, is overrun by thousands of visitors who range from the many devotees who go over to participate in the rituals at the temple and the curious who are there to soak up the atmosphere of what might once have been a common scene on the main island of Singapore; to the hundreds who would head there festival or not, to seek an escape from the madness of the concrete jungle.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

A modern interpretation of the three stars make an appearance.

It is more than just the colourful religious rituals that would be of interest to the curious. It is during the two festivals that we also see the use of the permanent Chinese opera stage – one of possibly two that are still left in Singapore. It has long been a tradition for Chinese temples to hold a ‘wayang‘, as the various forms of Chinese opera is commonly referred to in Singapore and Malaysia, in conjunction with festivities to entertain the deities and in the case of the seventh month, the spirits who return and many permanent stages were a feature of temples in villages across Singapore.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

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

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

While interest in wayangs, which had a following among the masses, has waned in the wake of the introduction of more modern forms of entertainment, the art is being kept alive at the Ubin temple and by its Teochew opera troupe on which the spotlight does shine during the two big festivals that the temple celebrates.

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.



At the time of writing, this year’s Tua Pek Kong festival (the photographs of which are used in this post) is still being celebrated. The celebrations will draw to a close on Saturday (17 May) with a getai (歌台) after which the temple sends Tua Pek Kong (Da Bo Gong or 大伯公) off. On the evidence of last year’s celebrations, the getai does also draw a sizeable crowd (see a post on last year’s Getai at Watching the stars under the stars) and for the experience of watching the stars (of the local getai circuit), under the stars, it certainly is well worth going over to Ubin on the final evening of the festival.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Camel cigarette smoking Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).


Free boat rides are provided through the period of the festival from 6.30 to 9.00 pm each evening from Changi Jetty (and from 8.30 to 10 pm on the return trip). More information on the festival’s programme can be found at Peiyan’s blog: 12 May – 17 May 2014: Pulau Ubin Celebrates the Tua Pek Kong’s birthday.

[Photos of another ritual, the Pingan Bridge (平安桥) crossing ceremony, done in the belief that it would cleanse the participant of negative energy]




Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong festival Programme for 17 May 2014:

1000: Teochew Opera Performance
1845: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple’s Night! + Getai Performance
2230: Departure of Da Bo Gong ritual

Some previous posts on festivities at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island:



A window into a Singapore we have discarded

6 05 2014

It may well be on the island from which the early building blocks of modern Singapore was obtained that we will find the last reminders of a way of life the new world it built has rendered irrelevant. The island, Pulau Ubin or the granite island, is the last to support the remnants of a once ubiquitous village community, a feature not only of the island but also much of a rural Singapore we no longer see.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

A window into a forgotten way of life.

While in all probability, the days for what’s left of the island’s village communities are numbered; there remains only a handful of villagers who now number in their tens rather than in the low thousands at its height and who hold stubbornly on to a way of life that will have little appeal to the generations that will follow; there at least in a well preserved village house, House 363B, that little reminder of a time and place that does now seem all too far away.

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House 363B is typical of a Chinese village dwelling, with a zinc roof, and a cemented base supporting half cemented and half wooded walls. Outside it, rubber sheet rollers tell us of days when much of the rural landscape had been dominated by rubber trees. On the inside, there is a collection of once familiar household items. These include a food safe – complete with receptacles placed under its four legs to keep insects out (a necessity in homes in the pre-refrigerator era), classic furniture, foot-pedal sewing machines, dachings and other implements of that forgotten age. It is in the house where life as it might have been, sans life itself, is being showcased, providing the generations of the future with a glimpse of how we did once live.

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The house is perhaps symbolic of what we in Singapore hope for Ubin, not just an ready made escape from the brave new world we have embraced just a short boat ride away, but in its wild, undisturbed, and unmanicured state, a world where we can relive a life we have discarded.

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Ubin does of course offer potentially more than that. The authorities do seem to be committed to not only keeping it in its rustic state for our future generations, but are also taking efforts to regenerate and protect its natural environment. This along with the noises being heard on an interest to keep what is left of the island’s heritage, the efforts taken in developing environmentally friendly solutions in the provision of electrical power for the island, and the attempts to engage Singaporeans on what they would like to see of Ubin (see also Enhancing Pulau Ubin’s heritage and rustic charm), does give us hope that Ubin will not become another part of a forgotten Singapore that will be lost.

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On the subject of Pulau Ubin, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), hosts an annual festival in honour of the deity over 6 days this year from 12 to 17 May 2014. It is well worth a visit there to soak up an atmosphere of a traditional religious celebration in a setting that is only available on the island.

The highlights of the celebration, besides the religious ceremonies, include Teochew Opera performances on each of the first five evenings (12 to 16 May) at 7pm and one in the morning of the last day at 10 am, as well as a Getai performance on the last evening that does draw a huge crowd. Free boat rides to Ubin will also be offered during the festival evenings from 6.30 pm (to Ubin) and up to 10 pm (from Ubin). More information on this year’s festival can be found at this site.

More information on previous Getai and Teochew Opera performances on Pulau Ubin can be found at the following posts:


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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Rediscovering the romance of Chap Goh Mei

19 02 2014

The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien for 15th night) as it has been commonly referred to in Singapore, has traditionally been associated with romance. It was perhaps in the hope of rediscovering the romance of a festival that has been lost in the embrace of modernity that drew a healthy crowd of participants to a walk through the streets of Chinatown on the evening of the fifteenth day this year on what coincidentally was also the western day for the celebration of romance, St. Valentine’s Day that was organised by the Conservation Management Department of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

A romantic spot on the streets of Chinatown on Chap Goh Mei.

The fifteenth night of any Chinese lunar month is of course one that, weather conditions permitting, would be illuminated by the light of the full moon – a setting that certainly is ideal for romance. In the case of Chap Goh Mei, it is a night when Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节) is celebrated, providing an evening for romance to be found not only in the light of the moon, but also in the glow of colourful lanterns; it having been a tradition to have lanterns displayed outside homes and along five-foot-ways, as it was for children to take to the streets carrying lanterns in a fashion similar to the Mid-Autumn festival.

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The search for romance would take many eligible young men and women to the water’s edge – the waterfront along Esplanade was, I am told, a particularly popular spot, from which fruits would be aimed into the water. For the ladies, it would be oranges, representing good husbands, that would be thrown, and for men, good wives taking the form of apples – a practice that I actually did not know about until more recent times.

The lantern parade through the streets of Chinatown on what can be seen as a double Valentine's Day in search for a lost romance.

The search for romance.

While we did not get the chance to toss oranges or apples in the name of romance, we did however get an opportunity to rediscover the romance of Chap Goh Mei and of a Chinatown that would otherwise lie hidden behind the recoloured labyrinth of streets of what would once have been referred to as Tua Poh or the ‘Greater Town’.

The lantern parade.

The lantern parade.

The route we were to take, lanterns in hand, was one of many twists and turns, taking us through a complex of streets that in being referred to as Chinatown, belies the intra-ethnic divisions that did once exist within the greater Chinese immigrant community, divisions that would once have been apparent in moving across the area’s many streets.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

Only a thin Ho may enter? The Thin Ho clan association on Ann Siang Road.

The first pause we made was the Ann Siang Hill area where the Cantonese dialect group did have a strong presence. Besides the well known Yeung Ching School (now referred to in the Mandarin form of the name as Yangzheng School) that was perched on top of Ann Siang Hill, there were the many Cantonese clan associations – many of which are still present in the area. Amongst the school alumni are many well known names. This included one that is synonymous with the the lost art of story telling and Redifussion’s Cantonese broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Dai Soh. Another, perhaps lesser known in Singapore, is a certain Xian Xinghai, the composer of the Yellow River Cantata – a work which was to become used as a Chinese revolutionary song. The Yeung Ching foundation does still maintain a presence in the area as is evident from a signboard seen atop a building it owns along Club Street close to its junction with Ann Siang Hill.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood - atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo's sixth floor.

The condo in the background would have been where the Yeung Ching school would have stood – atop a since levelled hill the base of which would have been at the condo’s sixth floor.

Ann Siang Road.

Ann Siang Road.

Club Street.

Club Street.

From Ann Siang Road and Club Street, the procession made its way up to Ann Siang Hill before continuing down to Amoy Street, once a predominantly a Hokkien street, as was Telok Ayer Street where the group was to make a stop in the glow of the beautifully restored Thian Hock Keng temple, a magnificent example of Hokkien temple architecture and a National Monument.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

Up Ann Siang Hill.

The view at the top.

The view at the top.

The pathway down.

The pathway down.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Down Ann Siang Hill.

Lantern bearers during a pause in the search for romance.

Lantern bearers posing for a photograph outside the Thain Hock Keng temple in the search for romance.

The temple, which now stands across from the watchful eyes of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, is dedicated to the protector of seafarers, the Taoist goddess of the sea, Ma Zu, does point to the fact that the temple did once find itself by the sea, as did the street it is located at – Telok Ayer Street was in the early days of post-Raffles Singapore, a waterfront to which many immigrants would have come ashore at (it was also interesting to learn that the rebuilt Hokkien Huay Kuan, sitting on the site of the temple’s wayang or Chinese Opera stage built over the then shoreline, was designed with a wide through corridor on its ground floor to provide a symbolic passage from the temple to the now distant sea). This did provide the street with a flavour that went beyond the Hokkiens with several other houses of worship and immigrant reception point coming along the street that were put up by other groups of immigrants including a Hakka clan association, Ying Fo Fui Kuan (also a National Monument) and the former Hakka Fuk Tak Chi Temple which was also used by Cantonese immigrants.

The 'watchful eyes' of the Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The ‘watchful eyes’ of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.

The rather interesting walk ended at another magnificent work of temple architecture, the very recently restored Yueh Hai Ching or Wak Hai Cheng temple at Phillip Street. Set inside a within a walled compound accessible through a narrow doorway from which the sight of coils of incense would first greet the eye, the temple (actually two temples side-by-side), also a National Monument, is another wonderful example of temple architecture, -this time in Teochew style. 

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Through the doorway to the newly restored Yueh Hai Ching.

Incense coils.

Incense coils.

The oldest Teochew temple in Singapore (its building dates back to the 1850s), the Yueh Hai Ching features a elaborately decorated roof and is dedicated to Ma Zu and Xuan Tian Shang Di. The temple besides catering to the Teochew community, does also attract worshipers from the Cantonese community – especially during the Chinese New Year – the Cantonese and Teochew communities having an affinity with both having originated from Guangdong (Canton) province. More on the temple can be found at the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s website.

Inside the temple.

Inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

Another view inside the temple.

While taking a walk in the company of strangers through now sanitised streets of an old world we in modern times may have seemed to have over-romanticised might not fit into everyone’s idea of how they would want to spend an evening businesses have turned into an excuse for money making, it was a walk in which I was rewarded with the rediscovery of the romance of a festival and of times I might not have otherwise been reminded of.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

Smoke from large joss sticks in the compound.

More winds of change blowing through Queen Street

7 02 2014

Besides the stretch of Queen Street at the Cathedral end, another section of the street in the midst of change is the stretch between Bras Basah and Middle Roads. It is one that although is already much changed from the street that I was familiar with in my younger days, which is littered with reminders of a past when the European missionaries left what did once seem like an indelible mark on it.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library - the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph's Church and the former St. Anthony's Convent can be seen in the foreground.

A view of part of the area from the (new) National Library – the three blocks of Waterloo Centre can be seen at the top left of the photograph. St. Joseph’s Church (the Portuguese Church) and the former St. Anthony’s Convent can be seen in the foreground.

One new addition to the stretch that will definitely leave a mark on the street will be the China Cultural Centre that is fast coming up (which got a mention in a post in March of last year). The centre, built as an effort on China’s part “to help people understand Chinese culture and deepen ties with the host country”, is one that will certainly change the character of an area once flavoured by schools which have since been moved out and two beautiful churches – legacies of the important contributions made by the French and the Portuguese missionaries to modern Singapore.

The China Cultural Centre  is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The China Cultural Centre is seen rising up just beyond the burnt siena coloured Oxford Hotel.

The centre stands on a plot of land that once had been occupied by the Stamford Community Centre, a place that I had been familiar with in my school days in nearby Saint Joseph’s Institution. The centre was where in May 1978, a balloting exercise was held for would be residents of the three residential Housing and Development Board (HDB) blocks of flats built over a lower podium block – a public housing complex that has for some 35 years now, dominate this stretch of the street. 

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

The former Stamford Community Centre.

The development of Waterloo Centre, which was completed in 1978, could be considered to be a significant one from a public housing perspective. It was one of several mixed commercial and residential built in the city centre at the 1970s and in the early 1980s that were built to accommodate some of the many residents and businesses that were being displaced by what was a huge wave of redevelopment sweeping across urban Singapore. 

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

The Waterloo Centre Podium with its mix of old and new.

Taking a walk around Waterloo Centre’s podium these days, one can’t help but feel the sense of time standing very still there; the podium is one that still contains many remnants of its shop lots’ first occupants – the motor spare parts dealers that were moved into it having been displaced from the redevelopment of the Sungei Road and Rochor areas. 

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Shops housing motor spare parts dealers.

Another look at the podium.

Another look at the podium.

Although there now is a mix of newer business with some of the original occupants, Waterloo Centre does seem a lot quieter compared to similar urban podium block complexes such as the nearby Albert Complex with its wet market and popular food centre, and Bras Basah Complex with its mix of bookshops and art supply shops and printing business. And that is perhaps why the complex is being given a makeover into Arts Place – a centre that perhaps fits into the vision set out for the area as a destination for the arts and culture.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into ArtsPlace.

Waterloo Centre seems to be in the middle of a transformation into Arts Place.

SAM @ 8Q - formerly  the Catholic High School - now an extension to the art museum.

SAM @ 8Q – formerly the Catholic High School – now an extension to the art museum.

On part of the plot where Waterloo Centre stands today was where a private school, the Mercantile Institution did once stand. The school, which was started in the late 1920s, was where my father did once enroll in, in the mess that came with the end of war when many publicly run schools were still shut and places were in short supply. It was only to be for a short while though, my father did eventually get a place in Monk’s Hill Boys School. There were a couple of things he did tell me of his experiences in the Mercantile Institution – one was that as the war had disrupted the education of many, there were many older boys who had to enrolled into the entry level classes. Another was that the name of the school was often mispronounced – coming across sounding like “Makan-tahi Institution” – “makan tahi” many in Singapore would know as Malay for (pardon the crudeness) “eat shit”.

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 - the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Nantina Hotel) (photo source:

Area where Waterloo Centre is today, as seen in 1959 – the Mercantile Institution, a private school established in the 1920s, can be seen on the left right next to Nantina Home (ex Toyo Hotel) (photo source:

Further along from the Mercantile Institution, there were two other buildings that many familiar with the area would remember. One was the former Nantina Home, which functioned as the Japanese owned Toyo Hotel before the war (it was the second Toyo Hotel – the first was demolished in 1937 to make way for Cathay Building) . As the Nantina Hotel after the war, it was used to accommodate returning European internees who came back via India, before it was handed over to the Department of Social Welfare who turned it into a home for the aged and destitute. That operated until 1959 when the building was taken over by the Trades Union Congress.

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source:

The area in 1975 with the former Nantina Home still standing next to Queen Street Post Office (photo source:

Right next to Nantina Home was another building many might remember – the Queen Street Post Office, housed in a four storey building. The building was demolished after the post office was closed in May 1978. What stands in its place (or at least partly in its place) today is the five storey Bylands Building of 1980s vintage, right next to Middle Road.

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source:

Queen Street Post Office which was to close in May 1978 is seen next to the already demolished former Nantina Home (photo source:

The part of Queen Street where the Mercantile Institution, the Nantina Home, and Queen Street Post Office was, is where a spectacle does takes place once a year on Good Friday. That is when part of the street and the compound of Saint Joseph’s Church next to it, becomes a sea of candlelight as part of a procession. That is a time when the rich religious traditions of the Portuguese missionaries, who did leave us one of the most beautiful churches on the island, does manifest itself – a celebration that does serve to remind us of what the area should really be remembered for.

The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng - a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives,

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

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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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:








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:
















































The other side of the moon

15 09 2012

In a fast changing world in which there often are just little reminders of the past to cling on to, it is always good to come across old world traditions that have not been displaced by the new. One area in which we are able to see this is in the making of mooncakes by some of the established mooncake bakeries, one of which is Chop Tai Chong Kok. I was able to visit the bakery very recently just as the making of mooncakes was being ramped-up as the Chinese eight month, in which the Mooncake or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated, approaches.

Mooncakes are still made in the traditional way at Chop Tai Chong Kok.

Having been in the business for some 77 years, the shop has long been one of the popular brands in traditional Cantonese style mooncakes, attracting long queues for the sweet delectable treats it produces in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn festival. It now produces the mooncakes it is well-known for, as well as other Cantonese style pastries and confectionery, in a shop lot in Ubi Avenue 1, having had to move its business in 34 Sago Street when Chinatown was being cleaned-up during the conservation efforts which have given us the sanitised version of Chinatown we see today. The shop has since opened a retail outlet back in the shophouse in which the business started – one that is now rented.

Long queues seen at the original shop at Sago Street in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival (photo taken off one displayed on the wall of the shop).

Having had to move out of their Sago Street premises during the remaking of Chinatown, the business now rents the same unit and operates a retail outlet there.

Although now made in newer premises, little has changed in the production of Chop Tai Chong Kok mooncakes since the days of the late Mr Tham Kah Chee who arrived from China in 1935 and started his business at Sago Street. The preparation of the dough as well as the lotus and bean paste fillings to the pressing of dough wrapped balls of paste into the round shaped mooncakes in wooden moulds that the late Mr Tham himself would have used is still very much done by hand. I was able to observe part of this process which involved five persons standing around a wooden topped table, very quickly transforming flat pieces of dough and pre-prepared balls of paste into unbaked paler versions of the famous mooncakes. The sounds of wooden moulds on the wooden table top took me back to the days of my youth when I would wander around the old streets of Chinatown to catch a glimpse of shop fronts brightly coloured by cellophane lanterns and for a chance to watch unbaked mooncakes being made on tables lined along the five-foot ways as the Mid-Autumn Festival approached.

Little has changed in the preparation of ingredients and in the way the mooncakes are made even with the mooncake maker operating in newer premises. The mooncakes are still considered to be the best among the best of traditional Cantonese mooncakes in Singapore.

The business is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the late Mr Tham’s family, with a grandson, Weng Seng, now involved in the running of business. Facing many challenges including he arrival of many new players in the market, the introduction of newer variations of the traditional pastry, changing tastes, the small local market, as well as in employing people willing to labour in the bakery, their mooncakes continue to remain popular with Singaporeans due to their commitment to tradition and quality. Being one of a few organic businesses that has reclaimed a place in a Chinatown where many other businesses have found it hard to return to, the desire of the new generation taking over to maintain the relevance of the business in the face of new challenges does spell hope that they will, for some time to come, continue to serve as a reminder of a world that would otherwise have long been forgotten.

The business in now in the hands of the Mr Tham Kah Chee’s children and the next generation. His son Mr Tham Wing Thong seen here is still very much involved in making the pastries.

Fillings (lotus paste with egg yolk seen here) prepared by hand are rolled into a ball and placed on trays ready to be wrapped in a skin of dough.

Trays of fillings for the morning’s mooncake making.

A flat round piece of dough is rolled and used to wrap the pre-prepared fillings. Lotus Paste, Red Bean Paste and Green Bean Paste with lotus seeds are traditional fillings used.

Covering up the filling …

A ball of dough wrapped around the filling ready to be pressed into a mould.

Pressing a dough into a wooden mould – the moulds used are those handed down by the late Mr Tham Kah Chee.

A fully pressed mooncake in the mould.

Knocking out the mooncake from the mould.


The mooncake is then placed in a baking tray destined for the oven.

Trays of unbaked mooncakes.

A close-up.

Mid-way through, the baking mooncakes are taken out to be glazed using egg-yolk.

Glazing the mooncakes.

A tray of freshly baked mooncakes just out of the oven.

Once out of the oven, the freshly baked mooncakes are transferred to wooden paper lined trays to cool down.

And given a light brush over.

Customers can opt to have their mooncakes wrapped in a traditional way.

Traditionally packed mooncakes.

And take them home in traditional brown paper bags – we used to call these chicken paper bags as such bags came in handy in bringing live chickens home.

A stack of paper bags … customers can also opt to have the mooncakes packed in square boxes and brought home in plastic bags or corporate gift paper bags.

A favourite with the kids … ‘piglets’ in baskets …

Similar methods are employed in the making of piglets.

Other traditional pastries are also on sale at the retail outlet.

Almond cookies.

Mooncakes on sale at the Sago Street retail outlet.

A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.

Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:

A one hundred year old beauty

26 06 2012

Of the places that remain of a childhood in a Singapore that I will never be able to see again, there is one which carries not just the memories of yesterday, but also the memory of an emotion that has almost been forgotten. The place, a church – St. Joseph’s Church in Victoria Street, which is housed in a building which on the 30th of June will celebrate its centenary, is one that takes me back to years which hold my earliest memories. It was a place where I had spent many Sunday mornings at mass after which I could look forward to sitting by tables and chairs laid by St. Anthony’s Boys’ School in the church’s compound where I could enjoy a bowl fishball noodles from the enterprising school canteen vendor who opened just to serve churchgoers on Sunday. It was also a place to which my grandmother would take me to every Good Friday, when arriving early to get a seat inside the church for its very popular Good Friday service, I would spend hours seated next to my grandmother as she sat in quiet contemplation.

St. Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street.

The church was known then to me as the ‘Portuguese Church’, a name which pointed to its origins in the Portuguese Mission in Singapore and its administration by Dioceses in the Portuguese colony of Goa and later in the Portuguese colony of Macau. The mission’s presence had dated back to the early 1820s – not long after Raffles founded modern Singapore, and predated the French Mission under which the Catholic churches in Singapore were later to come under. The Portuguese presence was to continue through the church which came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Macau until 1981 and after through priests appointed to the church until 1999 by the Bishop of Macau. This long association with the Portuguese Mission has not only provided us with the beautiful building that houses the church, but also with a little bit of Portugal that manifests itself in the Iberian flavour of the church’s interior as well as traditions and practices that are unique to St. Joseph’s Church which even to this day is still very much in evidence.

The portico of the church with the marble statues of St. Joseph in the centre, flanked by St. John de Brito and St. John of God.

The rectory of the church seen through one of the arches at the entrance portico of the church.

The current church building was blessed by the Bishop of Macau, Dom João Paulino Azevedo e Castro on the 30th of June 1912. The grand ceremony had commenced at 7 am with a procession during which various points around the exterior of the church were blessed before the congregation was admitted into the new church building’s interior in which as newspaper reports would have it “nearly every available space” was occupied.

The interior of St. Joseph’s Church dressed up in red for Easter this year. Newspaper reports mention that ‘nearly every available space’ in the church was occupied for its opening solemnities.

Darkness and light – the beautiful illuminated interior of the church.

The congregation that morning would have been the first to marvel at the splendour that was the new church building’s interior, one that even with the worn appearance that it now wears, is still very much a sight to behold. It is this interior, and its 14th Century style Gothic design that for me makes the church the most beautiful in Singapore. The interior is one that at time of the day is illuminated by a soft and beautiful pale green light that streams through the generous panels of stained glass it is provided with that casts both light and shadow on the many niches that line the walls of the church. The niches are ones which contain statues of Saints – statues which in the Catholic tradition are not as is popularly believed, idols, but reminders of ordinary people who have achieved the pinnacle of holiness. It is a statue of one of the Saints high up on the south wall in the middle of the church’s nave that in my childhood I had a fascination with – that of St. Sebastian depicted as he popularly is, bloodied and tied to a tree.

The church is naturally illuminated by the soft green light that streams through the generously provided stained glass windows.

Windows on the south wall of the nave. The upper windows catch the light beautifully. The upper walls of the nave are lined with niches in which the statues of Saints are placed.

The statue of St. Sebastian on the south wall of the nave.

The church is laid out as was the tradition on a plan in the shape of a cross – a Latin cross in this instance. The nave which ends with the apse in the shape of five sides of an incomplete hexagon in the west which houses the Chancel and the main entrance to the east, is crossed by a transept. The high ceiling allows the provision of the many stained glass windows along the upper levels of the nave and the transept and those that attended the blessing ceremony would have seen this but not the stained glass that has to be seen as the church’s crowning glory – the beautiful panels in the Chancel which although now in a state of disrepair, can still be appreciated as one of the more elaborate works of such kind found in Singapore. The panels were the work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges. The church’s stained glass which are now in an obvious state of disrepair will be part of a restoration effort that will commence soon after the church celebrates the building’s 100th Anniversary. The work which will take two years of painstaking effort to complete will be carried out by a Singaporean stained glass artist, Bee Liang, who has extensive experience in the work from her stints in Canada and training in Germany.

The exterior of the south transept – even the exterior of the building catches the light beautifully at certain times of the day.

Closer inspection of a stained soft green glass window on the south transept, illuminated partially by another window across on the rear wall of the transept.

Stained glass panels in the Chancel – work of Belgian artisans from Jules Dobbelaere’s studio in Bruges.

Looking towards the east end of the nave – the gallery can be seen on the upper level.

Another view of the east end of the nave.

The central panels depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus flanked by Our Lady and St. Joseph.

A stained glass panel depicting St. John Berchmans.

A panel depicting St. Francis Xavier.

A panel depicting St. Agnes.

Five panel stained glass window at the end of the south transept.

Morning light streaming into the north transept.

Besides the beautiful stained glass – the very elaborate high altar of white and coloured marble dedicated to St. Joseph is another that is worth taking a notice of. The church also features some excellent carved teak wood pieces – one which runs along the transept is a 40 metre long altar rail along which the faithful would once have knelt to receive Holy Communion. The carved piece that will certainly be noticed is the ornamented teak pulpit with its canopy, one that I never failed to notice every time I visited the church.

The stained glass of the Chancel and the high altar dedicated to St. Joseph.

The ornamented craved teak pulpit and canopy.

The church which once shared its compound with two schools – St. Anthony’s Boys’ School and St. Anthony’s Convent, is the last of the three to remain and having been gazetted as a National Monument in 2005, will be one that will certainly be there for a much more than the 100 years it has stood, for which a mass will be held at 10.30 am on 30th June 2012. Besides the work on the stained glass, there is much more repair work that needs to be done – the ravages not just of time, but also of nearby construction activity are clearly evident which will require funds to be raised. It will not just be the magnificent building and all that it holds that will with its restoration and conservation be retained, but also of a tradition that its has been proud to maintain that dates back to the early days of Singapore.

More views around the church in the morning light

Seeing the light.

Darkness and light.

Statue of St. Anthony of Padua.

The nave windows of the church.

Floor tiles in the church.

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Chasing the dragon through streets of red and gold

25 01 2012

I did something I’ve not contemplated doing in a long time over the weekend which was to brave the crowds on the streets of Chinatown on the eve of the Chinese New Year. I must admit that it wasn’t the street market with its offerings of red and gold and festive goodies that drew me, but rather the opportunity to photograph the 108 metre long illuminated three-dimensional Water Dragon decoration that has for the last month or so, dominated the divide between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road at the junction with Upper Cross Street, but since I was already there, I took the opportunity to take what was a thoroughly enjoyable walk around the street market as well.

Beside the street market, another draw to Chinatown in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year is the light-up which this year features a 108 metre long 3D Water Dragon.

The crowds on Pagoda Street on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Dragons, big and small, were everywhere this Chinese New Year.

Last day offers by vendors hoping to dispose of their excess stock attract crowds to the Chinese New Year street market.

Strolling around the street market, I realise that despite the sanitised version of streets that were once never without that spark, there is still some of what is missing to be found on the streets as they come alive in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year. Then as it is now, Chinatown is a focal point for shoppers seeking the essential to welcome the New Year, as they throng the narrow passageways left through streets lined with stalls that offer goods of red and gold – colours considered most auspicious by the Chinese, bringing colour and excitement that remind us of a now distant world.

Melon seeds - a must serve during the New Year.

Groundnuts too ...

Picking tangerines. Tangerines symbolise gold and are exchanged during the New Year for luck and prosperity.

Chopsticks on sale.

The market draws more than the local shopper – tourists mingle with the crowds, as do more recent residents of Singapore – many from a world from which our Chinese ancestors made their passage from in search of a better life and the world which gave us the festival we now celebrate. It is the new arrivals to our land that seem to bring the new Chinatown now to live, much as the ancestors to our older Chinese citizens would have done in very different surroundings. There was a different feel to the surroundings this time as well as a late afternoon downpour threatened to dampen the atmosphere that was building just as the crowd thickened in anticipation of discounts offered by vendors seeking to dispose of excess goods before the streets fall silent for the New Year. Although the downpour did thin the crowd on the streets as many sought shelter in the food outlets that were still opened late on the eve of the New Year, there were still plenty who umbrella in hand, braved the sudden deluge in search of a bargain.

The late afternoon downpour failed to dampen the atmosphere.

A shopper and her daughter under an umbrella.

More recent arrivals from China gathering for a reunion away from home along a five-foot-way in Chinatown. Part of the renewal has seen Chinatown becoming a focal point for the new arrivals from China, as much as it was one for the arrivals of old.

Wet from the rain, I decided to make a move as day became night, but not before seeking the best vantage for a photograph of the Water Dragon. I soon found it, thanks to the hundreds of photos that have been posted. It was then time for a reunion of sorts – not the ones I miss that were always accompanied by the sounds of a Tanjong Pagar Railway Station that has since fallen silent, but one in which tradition has been abandoned – a sign perhaps of who I have become in the brave new world I now find myself in.

An aerial view of the Water Dragon and the light-up.

The sea of red

3 02 2011

Chinese New Year for me has always been a time to look forward to. It wasn’t just for the red packets or envelopes which had the promise of some additional cash in hand, but for the opportunity it provides to catch up with relatives and friends, some of whom we would see only once a year. In my early days, the new year would also mean long road trips around the long and winding roads that got us to the more remote parts of the island, long before the arrival of the Pan Island Expressway, and although I usually did not enjoy the visits to the remote locations which included Punggol where my grandmother had a “sworn-sister” and the Jalan Teck Whye area, where my mother had a childhood friend to visit, I did enjoy the long drives which in the days before air-conditioners were commonly installed in cars, meant a long and usually uninterrupted journey with the wind blowing in my hair through the opened window and quarter glass of the car.

The sea of red Chinese New Year decorations - red being an auspicious colour to the Chinese, New Year celebrations are never without the colour red - but it isn't the red of decorations that I would first associate Chinese New Year with.

The reunion dinner was always something to look forward to as well, as this would be one of two occasions (the other being Christmas) during which the extended family on my father’s side would gather. Many of these dinners when I was a little older would take place at my aunt’s place in Spottiswoode Park, just across from the train station – and has continued on up to last year. One of the things I would always associate with reunion dinners is the sounds of the trains – the horn that sounded as the Senandung Malam departed and the sound of the very loud diesel locomotives that punctured the silence of the evening.

The sounds from the railway station are ones that I associate Chinese New Year reunion dinners with, as for many years we would have our reunion dinners at my aunt's place in Spottiswoode Park just across from the train station.

Silence wasn’t of course something that Chinese New Year celebrations are associated with, and besides the familiar sounds for the pounding of drums and clash of cymbals, there was that once familiar sound of fire crackers going off in the night, something that faded with the complete ban on the firing of fire crackers soon after the Chinese New Year of 1972 due to the trail of death, injury and destruction they were inclined to leave (although we could still hear the sporadic crackling for some years following the ban as a few resisted what were seen as attempts to restrict a traditional practice). It was in fact the after effects of the firing of fire crackers that has given me my earliest memories of Chinese New Year, which would have been associated with the very first Chinese New Year I had after moving to Toa Payoh at the end of the 1960s. What I clearly remember is stepping out of the lift and seeing the sea of red, which was a ground coloured red by what was left behind from the previous night’s firing of crackers … that is the lasting impression that I would always have of Chinese New Years past.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that hung in the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives,

The sights and sounds of the Lion Dance is now the sound of Chinese New Years.


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