What colours the full moon of Thai

4 02 2015

Colouring the full moon during the Tamil month of Thai, which fell yesterday,  is the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

The festival is celebrated with much fervour by the southern Indian communities of Singapore and in the Peninsula and is one of the last religious festivals in Singapore that brings crowds, colour, and what seems very much in evidence these days, a massive police presence and snap happy locals and tourists, to the streets.

More on the festival, including photographs taken at previous Thaipusam celebrations, can be found in the following posts:

Vel, Vel, Vadivel: Thaipusam in Singapore (2010)
Sights Sans Sounds of Thaipusam in Singapore (2011)
Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Templ (2012)
An Annual Walk of Faith (2013)
Faces of Thaipusam 2014 (2014)


Photographs from the 2015 Thaipusam celebrations at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple

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New Year at the old harbour

1 01 2015

An occasion that is celebrated in a big way in Singapore in the New Year, which since 2005, sees fireworks illuminate the night sky against the backdrop of the ultra modern skyline at Marina Bay. The occasion, providing an opportunity not just to usher in the new year, but also to celebrate Singapore’s amazing transformation over the years, especially so this year with Singapore celebrating 50 years of independence.

Fireworks over Marina Bay at the stroke of midnight, 2015.

Fireworks over Marina Bay at the stroke of midnight, 2015.

While the 2015 countdown at Marina Bay, marks the tenth anniversary of the event being held there, the location has in fact been one that has traditionally been associated with the New Year – as the Inner Roads of the old harbour, it was where a New Year’s Day event that could be traced back to 1839 – just 15 years after Raffles founded modern Singapore, the New Year Sea Sports, had been held annually – except for the intervention of war, until the end of the 1960s.

A kolek race held during the New Year Sea Sports, 1951 (National Archives of Singapore).

The sea sports event, held in the waters off Collyer Quay, featured a series of races with traditional boats such as koleks, as well as competitions that ranged from tub-races, greasy poles, swimming, diving and even cock-fighting and attracted participants from the islands not just of Singapore, but also from those in the Riau Archipelago - maintaining a centuries old cultural connection that has in the post-independent years been broken with the tighter enforcement of border controls.

A tub-race during the sea sports event in 1960 (Straits Times).

Tracing its origins to a regatta that was organised in 1834, five years before it became an annual event by European merchants, the sea sports event would draw crowds in the tens of thousands to Collyer Quay. With the introduction of races that featured traditional boats, the event would keep alive Singapore’s coastal inhabitants connections with the sea for well over a century. Sadly, as with many of the traditions that were very much a part of who we were, the new year races have long been abandoned in a Singapore that cares little for its past.

A greasy-pole competition during the New Year Sea Sports in 1929 (National Archives of Singapore).

The tens of thousands that are now drawn to the areas where the Inner Roads were – much of which now forms the western part of the new world that is Marina Bay, are treated to a very different spectacle these days. The especially big celebration  at this year’s countdown event included a concert on The Float @ Marina Bay – a temporary floating stage that was originally intended to stand-in as an event venue in the time it took the National Stadium to be constructed; saw the likes of popular local artistes such as the Dim Sum Dollies, Stefanie Sun and Dick Lee and Kit Chan, as well as popular K-Pop group BIGBANG create a big bang.

K-Pop group BIGBANG - clearly the highlight of the evening's lineup on stage.

K-Pop group BIGBANG – clearly the highlight of the evening’s lineup on stage.

As might have been expected, BIGBANG drew the loudest response of screams from the youthful crowd. It would however have been Kit Chan’s rendition of local favourite “Home” for which she was accompanied by Dick Lee – the song’s composer, on piano just before the turn of the year, that made the event especially memorable for all of Singapore as it prepares to celebrate its jubilee year.

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Stefanie Sun

Stefanie Sun

The city's ultra modern skyline - illuminated in colours selected for the New Year.

The city’s ultra modern skyline – illuminated in colours selected for the New Year.

Dick Lee and Kit Chan gave a stirring performance of Home.

Dick Lee and Kit Chan gave a stirring performance of Home.





Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

5 11 2014

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.

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Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.

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The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.

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I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .

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The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.

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Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.

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While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.


Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance.

Prayers offered before the performance.

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Preliminaries

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During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse.

Men becoming one with the horse.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

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The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

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The Barong

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Performers being brought out of the trance

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The burning boat

14 10 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

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

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

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

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

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

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The three last stages of Singapore

17 09 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

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

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

The wayang stage in Pulau Ubin.





The dragon comes alive for Mid-Autumn

9 09 2014

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

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

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

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

More photographs from last evening’s opening:

The packed kiln.

The packed kiln.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Sealing the access opening.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Preparing offerings to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

Offering a prayer to the kiln god.

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

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

Lighting the fire.

Lighting the fire.

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

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

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

Paper offerings being burnt in the kiln.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

The full autumn moon graced the occasion.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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

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

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Good music went with the good food at the opening.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.

Flames seen through an opening in the firing box.





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.

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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).

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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]

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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:


 

 








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