The eighth night

1 03 2016

Chinese New Year, celebrated over a fifteen day period that culminates with Chap Goh Mei or Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节), is an occasion for much joy and feasting for the Chinese community here in Singapore. It is also an occasion when the many sub-cultural practices brought in by the diverse group of early Chinese immigrants are brought to the surface. One such observation is that of the Heavenly Jade Emperor’s birthday. Commemorated on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated by members of the Hokkien community.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore's oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

For the community, who were among the earliest group of immigrants to come ashore in British Singapore, the observation is of great importance. Referred to as Pai Tee Kong in Hokkien (or Bai Tian Gong, 拜天公 in Mandarin), it is sometimes also called the “Hokkien New Year”.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

As to how the community came to regard the birthday as the most important of the fifteen days, there are several versions of the story (one of which is found here). The many variations do have one thing in common – that members of the community were able to elude would be attackers by taking refuge in a field of sugarcane and praying to the Jade Emperor for deliverance.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day. Legend has it that a field of sugarcane offered Hokkiens fleeing from attackers a place of refuge.

Where the story differs is in when it took place and who the Hokkiens were running from, ranging from the incident taking place during the time of the Song or Mongol dynasties with Hokkien (or Fujian) province under attack by the armies loyal to the ruling dynasty, to it taking place during the days of the Ming Dynasty and the Hokkiens being pursued by bandits or pirates. Whatever it was, it was on the ninth day – coincidentally the birthday of the Heavenly Jade Emperor – Taoism’s most supreme deity, that the Hokkiens were able to emerge from their hiding place and celebrate the new year.

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Preparations to greet the Heavenly Jade Emperor begin in earnest on the eve of the ninth day. Stalks of sugarcane are purchased by Hokkien families who place them by the doors of their homes or on either side of a table of offerings. The offerings include items such as pineapples, sweets, roast pigs and huat kueh (steamed “prosperity cakes” often used as prayer offerings), all of which also have a special significance.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

Temples are probably where the celebrations are at their most colourful. At the Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple and the spiritual home of Hokkien culture in Singapore along Telok Ayer Street, a temporary altar to the Jade Emperor is erected to which prayers and offerings made. It is however just next door at the former home of a Hokkien Peranakan mutual-aid society, the Keng Teck Whay, that one of the more elaborate ceremonies is held.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The beautifully crafted 19th century Keng Teck Whay, long in a state of disrepair, has only very recently been restored by the Singapore Taoist Mission. The mission now runs the National Monument as the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and maintains many of the practices of the Keng Teck Whay. Dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the temple’s Pai Tee Kong, all of which was conducted in the Hokkien vernacular, is especially elaborate and a wonderful reminder that Singapore, in all its modernity, is still where many traditions have not lost their place.

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay ...

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay …

Which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.

… which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance for the Thain Hock Keng across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held at temples to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.





Spring is in the air

9 02 2016

Every eve of the Lunar New Year, we are reminded of the old Chinatown when the now sanitised streets and the annual festive bazaar that comes up in the lead up to the New Year, comes alive. Chinatown is at its most atmospheric then as crowds throng its streets in search of festive goods being disposed off at a bargain – much like it was in the days of old. The eve also sees Taoist temples getting ready for the crowds – it is customary for Chinese of the Taoist faith to visit the temple in the early hours of the New Year to offer respects to the deities. One temple that gets busy is the oldest Hokkien temple, the Thian Hock Keng, where festivities this year were accompanied by Hokkien marionette puppet shows and stilt walkers – part of a series of events for the Lunar New Year that will also see a getai held on 15 February. The temple is also holding a series of guided tours during the period, more information on which can be found at http://www.thianhockkeng.com.sg/events_2016_cny.html.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

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Monkeys were everywhere.

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The Sri Mariamman hindu temple.

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Stilt walkers outside the Thian Hock Keng.

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The Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

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The puppet show stage at the Thian Hock Keng.

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Calligraphy.

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A puppeteer in action.





Pole dancing at Hong Lim Park

27 01 2016

Dressed in bright eye-catching costumes, thirteen pairs of pole dancers sent hearts racing at Hong Lim Park over the weekend. The dancers, all of whom demonstrated great skill, strength and coordination, were participating in the 9th International Lion Dance Competition being held over two evenings as part of Chinatown Celebrates Chinese New Year 2016.

The winning lion - from China's Foshan Huang Feihong Memorial Hall, in action.

The winning lion – from China’s Foshan Huang Feihong Memorial Hall, in action.

The competition, which attracted thirteen teams from China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, required each pair of lion dancers to perform rather dangerous looking stunts atop “plum blossom poles” or meihuazhuang (梅花桩).

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The second placed lion form Taiwan’s Changxing Master Lu’s Lion and Dragon Dance troupe.

China’s Foshan Huang Feihong Memorial Hall (佛山黄飞鸿纪念馆) took first place with a score of 9.4 points, edging out Taiwan’s Changxing Master Lu’s Lion and Dragon Dance troupe (台湾长兴吕师父龍獅团) who scored 9.31 points.


More photographs

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Colours of Singapore: Chinatown Celebrates Chinese New Year

17 01 2016

Photographs from yesterday’s launch of Chinatown Celebrates Chinese New Year 2016 and Light-up at New Bridge Road. The especially colourful event, which was graced by President Tony Tan Keng Yam, officially opened the Chinatown Celebrates Chinese New Year more information on which can be found in a previous post: Monkeys, monkeys everywhere.

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Monkeys, monkeys everywhere

14 01 2016

Monkeys, lots of them, promise to set Chinatown alight come Saturday. For 53 days, some 406 of them, in the form of lanterns, will add to the crowd of monkeys that is already very evident on the streets of Chinatown. The lanterns are part of a record setting display of 2688 lanterns that include ones depicting longevity in the form of peaches, prosperity in the abundance of gold zodiac coins and spring blossoms to celebrate the arrival of Spring and the lunar year of the Monkey. The lanterns on display, the centrepiece of which is a 12 metre tall peach tree, have all been hand-crafted and were designed in partnership with final-year students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

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Monkeys have already invaded Chinatown in anticipation of the arrival Chinese new year of the monkey.

Monkey lanterns - some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

Monkey lanterns – some 406 of them will add to the monkey madness.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

The twelve-metre tall peach tree lantern.

Along with the light-up, there will also be much to look forward to during this year’s Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations. Organised by the Kreta Ayer – Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee, the lead up to the Chinese community’s main festival will see events involving the community, performances, a lion-dance competition and a festive bazaar and carnival. The lion dance competition (a ticketed event) features 14 teams from 8 countries will take place at Hong Lim Park on the weekend of 23-24 January.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

There will be a lion dance competition to look forward to.

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Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

Along with performances that will feature both local and foreign performers.

The Festive Street Bazaar, which runs from 15 January to 7 February, is always well worth a walk through. Lining Pagoda, Smith, Temple and Trengganu Streets – much as the street and festive markets of old Chinatown did, the bazaar adds much to the festive atmosphere. This bazaar will see some 440 stalls this year and on offer will be a range of festive goods such as decorative items and traditional delicacies and snacks.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

The Festive Street Bazaar, where items such as traditional Chinese New Year snacks can be purchased, will feature 440 stalls.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

Stalls already stocked to welcome the year of the Monkey.

More monkeys in evidence.

More monkeys in evidence.

Colour will also be added to Kreta Ayer Square. Nightly stage performances featuring festive songs, cultural music and dance will be held from 8 to 10.30 pm. Other modern interpretations of the celebration include a “Mother Tree” that will respond to postings on social media. Set up by students from the SUTD on the Garden Bridge, the pink tree reacts to every count of 18 posts on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that are hash-tagged #CNY2016SG, and give an 18 second show of lights. Another “tree”, the Wishing Tree at Chinatown Point, is where one’s wishes can be hung. Wishing cards are available at $2 each and proceeds will be donated to the Kreta Ayer Seniors ‘ Activity Centre.

The Mother Tree.

The Mother Tree.

There will also be an attempt to recall the traditions of our forefathers – in an exhibition, My Father Tongue. This would be held at the newly revamped Chinatown Heritage Centre from 28 January to 6 March 2016. The exhibition will look at the three main Chinese dialect influenced sub-cultures in Singapore and their festive practices. There would also be dialect workshops conducted during the period of the exhibition.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

Dr Lily Neo, Grassroots Adviser and MP for Jalan Besar GRC, penning her wishes at the Wishing Tree.

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The celebrations 2016 and the light-up will be  launched on 16 January 2016. The event will see a retelling of “Journey to the West” that will involve both local and foreign performers Fireworks and firecrackers are expected at both this an at the Chinese New Year Countdown Party on 7 February. More information on the events can be found at http://chinatownfestivals.sg/chinatown-chinese-new-year-celebrations-2016/.

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Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

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There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

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More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

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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.








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