Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

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

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

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

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

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

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

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

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

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

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

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On borrowed time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee

19 06 2012

The Geylang area as many know is one that is associated with the seedier side of life, great food as well as the many houses of worship it plays host to. It is unfortunate that the seedier aspects does dominate the impressions we have collectively formed of the area. Geylang does, despite its appearance, have a lot more to offer than that, being rich not just in its architectural heritage, but also where some aspects of its history (as well as that of Singapore’s) have been preserved. Strategically located in the area where the Kallang and Geylang rivers meet, a large part of Geylang’s more recent history lies in the industrial development that took place around the Kallang Basin which also drew many from afar to seek their fortune to the area.

The stories of these migrants and that of the area’s industrialisation are now all but lost and it is in the old buildings and in the houses of worship that these forgotten stories are to be discovered. One of the houses of worship that has a story to tell is a Taoist temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), that now lies somewhat isolated in a quiet corner off the Geylang we now see – a story that all too soon may be totally forgotten. The temple is one that now sits on a site that it occupied since 1901 as a guest, a guest that may soon overstay its welcome. The site – an obscure corner of what used to be Geylang Lorong 17, now Sims Drive, is on land that the HDB now owns, land that will be possibly be redeveloped with the cluster of public flats next to it that find themselves the victims of the relentless pace of redevelopment in Singapore.

Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee sits in a quiet corner at the end of what was Geylang Lorong 17 (the part that is now Sims Drive).

A portal to a forgotten past.

My introduction to the temple and its origins was via a guided tour of it that one of our local experts on temples in Singapore, Yik Han, was kind enough to give at the end of a short walk of discovery I did with some friends through Geylang’s streets of sin and salvation. The temple’s history, I was to learn, goes back beyond 1901, to the second half of the 19th Century (the 1860s). It owes its establishment to the Cantonese and Hakka coolie population that had found work in the brick kilns that thrived by the banks of the Kallang River due to the availability of clay that was of a quality suitable for brick making. The temple is closely associated with a village on the banks that was referred to as Sar Kong (沙崗) or ‘Sand Ridge’ and had moved a few times before finding itself in its current site.

Yik Han giving an introduction to the temple’s history.

A member of the temple’s committee speaking of the temple’s origins …

… some of which is captured on a tablet.

In the temple’s name, one can perhaps find a reference to its origins. The name ‘Mun Sun’ is thought to be transliteration of the malay word bangsal, the Malay word for ‘shed’ or ‘workshop’ – a reference to its industrial origins. The temple which is dedicated to the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong (大伯公) does, besides its interesting history, contain several interesting articles that await discovery. One is a carved altar table that bears the markings of the craftsmen who made it. On closer inspection of one of its legs, there are the marks left by the craftsmen which include the Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ – ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or the Chinese name for what we call Chinatown today. What this points to is that the craft was carried out not as one might have expected in China – where there was a tendency to commission such work, but locally.

The main altar to Tua Pek Kong. The carved wooden altar table in the foreground is one that was crafted off the streets of ‘Ox-Cart Water’, 牛车水 or 牛車水 in the traditional script. A carved inscription on one of the legs bears evidence of this.

Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’- ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or ‘Kreta Ayer’ or the Chinese name for Chinatown in Singapore, indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore’s Chinatown who made the table at a time when a lot of such work would have been commissioned in China.

The temple plays host to several other deities including the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人). That she is the patroness of child-bearing won’t escape notice with the 12 nannies tending to young children that accompany her on the altar. One deity whose name escaped meat the side of the temple takes a curious form – that of a mannequin that is used to represent it.

The patroness of child-bearing, the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人) with some of the 12 nannies who flank her on the altar.

A close-up of one of the 12 nannies.

Te deity which has a mannequin representing him.

The temple’s building also holds a clue to its origins. In the course of his introduction, Yik Han pointed out a little known fact – that the building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese style temple architecture in Singapore. It is also interesting to note that the temple had also at some point, housed a school, as well as a sports club, the sports club being started to provide a channel for alternative pursuits other than addiction to opium.

The temple’s building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese temple architecture.

The part of the temple where the school operated, now houses the lion dance troupe that probably is the temple’s claim to fame. It is the troupe that performs the fire dragon dance which uses a dragon that is made out of padi straw and lit up with incense sticks. A fire dragon from the temple featured in this year’s Chingay parade. The dragon that was used lies quietly in a room on the right side of the temple.

A ‘fire’ dragon made from padi straw that was used in Chingay 2012. The temple is known for the Fire Dragon dance.

Despite the temple’s significant links with the history of immigration into and the industrial development of the area, the future of the temple on its current site is one that is uncertain. The blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats that have cast a shadow on it for over three decades have been vacated – part of a on-going programme to renew some of the older public housing neighbourhoods known as the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) that will see them demolished and replaced by newer apartment blocks. This may mean that the temple at its current site may soon see its final days and with that … one of the last reminders of the area’s early industrial history will be one that like the area’s past that it represents, be forever lost.

Coils of incense on the ceiling.

Blessings that will be attached to the incense coils.


See also: 19th-century temple at risk of demolition (Sunday Times 26 January 2014).