Pagoda Street’s pagoda was probably not the Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram

23 07 2021

One of the fascinating things about the streets of Singapore is the stories that are attached to how they were named, either colloquially or officially. One example is Pagoda Street, along which a pagoda — at least in the modern sense of the word — seems quite conspicuously absent.

While is certainly puzzling to Singapore’s visitors, we in Singapore have been schooled to hold the belief that the pagoda in question is the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Depending on how creatively this story is told, the temple’s prominent located gopuram at the corner of South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street, might have been mistaken by the common folk as a pagoda or for the want of a better description, identified as one. Whatever the story may have been, they all seem to have ignored the fact that the word “pagoda” in the context of the early 19th century when the street got its name, was one that was in use in the English language in making reference to both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and in Southeast Asia.

The gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple

Historically, the use of the term “pagoda” is quite interesting. Its origins as many would have it is said to lie in the Persian word “butkada”, which is said to translate into “temple of idols”. There are also strong suggestions that it may instead have been derived from Chinese, or at least the Chinese dialects — some would argue, languages — that were in use in the past. The combination of Chinese words describing a “tower of bones of the dead” (白骨塔) or literally “white-bone tower”, is often cited as a possible source of the word, or even “octagonal tower” (八角塔) or literally “eight-cornered tower”. Both combinations, when said in one or several commonly spoken southern Chinese dialects, are similar sounding to the pronunciation of “pagoda” in the English language.

A Chinese-styled pagoda at Haw Par Villa (a personal photograph from November 1976). One suggestion is that the origin of the word “pagoda” is Chinese. The word “pagode” was however already in use in the 16th Century in Portuguese India to describe Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Interestingly, the Portuguese version of the word, “pagode”, was already in use as early as the early 16th century, during a time when Portugal established its presence in India after Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a hitherto elusive sea route from Europe to the subcontinent. The word was utilised to describe the Indian temple complexes, both Hindu and Buddhist, that fascinated the Portuguese and the Europeans that were to follow. One example of this use was in the descriptions of the rock-cut Buddhist temple complex on Salsette Island near Mumbai or as it would have been called by the Portuguese, Bom Bahia. The complex came to be known as “Pagode de Canarim” (also”Pagoda de Canarin”), which the British would later name “Canari Pagoda”. The word “pagode” in the English form would also come also to be widely used, as is evidenced through official accounts, literature and correspondence through the 17th to 19th centuries, to describe either a Hindu or Buddhist temple and in some cases, even a mosque. There is in fact a description of the Sri Mariamman Temple, on a 1846 sketch made by John Turnbull Thomson of the temple and the Jamae Chulia Mosque on South Bridge Road, that does refer to the Sri Mariamman Temple as a “Hindoo Pagoda”. The mosque is referred to in the same description as a “Kling Mosque”.

“View in Singapore town; Hindoo Pagoda; Kling Mosque”; 1846
Thomson, John Turnbull, ourheritage.ac.nz

Descriptions of Hindu temples as “Hindoo pagodas”, were in fact used rather widely in English accounts of explorations and travels of the 19th and early 20th century. It therefore is quite probable that Pagoda Street was named, not because of Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopruam having erroneously been looked upon as a pagoda, but the Sri Mariamman Temple in whole, was to the English speakers of the day a “Hindoo pagoda”.

The Sri Mariamman, which is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, seen here during the Navaratri festival in 2015, would probably have been thought of as a “Hindoo pagoda”. The term was used in 19th century English to describe Hindu temples.
Sri Mariamman Temple’s gopuram, seen above the rooftops of the streets of Chinatown.

Various illustrations of “pagodas” found in India in 19th century Portuguese and English literature

An illustration of a Hindu temple in the Damāo Pequeno north of Mumbai in “A India Portugueza” published in 1886.
Another illustration of an Indian temple complex, named “Pagode de Chandrenate” in “A India Portugueza”.
A Hindu temple described as a “Hindoo Pagoda” in an illustration found in “India, historical and descriptive: revised and enlarged from “Les Voyages Celebres” with an account of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857-8, published in 1876.





Discovering the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown

23 12 2020

Unlike many other cities around the world where “Chinatowns” exist, a “Chinatown” in Singapore — where three in four of its population are ethnic Chinese — does seem rather odd.

The roots of the Chinese quarter do of course lie in Singapore’s very first urban plan, the so-called Jackson Plan of 1822, hatched at a time when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. That plan, placed the main settlement for migrants from China in the area where Chinatown is today also had a “Chuliah campong” for settlers from the Indian sub-continent adjacent to it. To the Chinese speaker, Chinatown had long been known as Tua Poh (大坡) or “the greater town”, or Ngau Che Shui or Gu Chia Chwee (牛车水) — a reference to bullock-drawn water carts carrying supplies of fresh water to the settlement in its early days. It is perhaps in recent times that the notion of the former settlement being Chinatown has taken root, and this seems rather ironically to have coincided with the quarter losing its original Chinese-ness through resettlement and redevelopment, and its subsequent association with the modern Chinese immigrant and the tourist crowd from modern day China.

The Town Plan of 1822.

These developments do in a way, mimic the evolution of the Singaporean Chinese identity — something that the “Not China Town” tour that has been put together by The Real Singapore Tours — seeks to examine. The tour, which I had the opportunity to attend a preview of, involved a long but leisurely walk through Singapore’s Chinatown. Together with the realisation of how widely spread Singapore’s so-called Chinese quarter is, the tour provides its participants through the stories told at various touch points and through songs, is a much deeper understanding of what the “China” in Singapore’s Chinatown is really all about.

Chinatown at the Crossroads – Cross Street was in the area where the “Chuliah Campong” was.

The tour, which can be forgiven for being too long due to the depth into which its guides expertly explore the evolving Chinese identity and for the refreshment stop — is certainly a must do — if the question of what shapes the Chinese Singaporean identity does bug you. Do look out for them at The Real Singapore Tours.


Highlights of Not China Town

Guide Jamie Lee giving an overview of what Singapore’s Chinatown is all about.
Listening to the first song – before the continuation of the “dance” through Chinatown.
Why Pagoda Street?
Another of the guides, Mark Tan (who sings very well), explaining the politics in the simplification of the Chinese character “sheng” in taking the king (王) out and giving power to the ground (土). The simplification of Chinese characters was an effort initiated by the Peoples’ Republic of China in the mid 20th century.
Celebrating the recent addition of hawker culture in Singapore to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the new age and very touristy hawker street on Smith Street?
A modern addition to Chinatown – around where the street of the dead was. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple may have little to do with the collective memory the Chinese Singaporean may have of Chinatown, but it is an example of Tang architecture — the dynasty with which the Chinese immigrants of the past from Southern China identify with. Many descendants of the earlier Chinese immigrants to Singapore would have been identified as T’ng Lang, T’ng Nang or Tong Yan – 唐人- or Tang Ren in Mandarin or People of the Tang, rather than as Han Chinese.
Mark Loon – on the ma-jie and their vows of spinsterhood.
Of animistic practices and the natuk kong.
On the visit of Deng Xiaoping and the sinification of the Chinese in Singapore.
Clues that point to the migration from Amoy (E-m’ng or Xiamen).
A last song – at where it all began for many early immigrants from China.





Rats, on the streets of Singapore!

10 01 2020

The arrival of spring, celebrated as the Chinese New Year, brings colour to the streets of Singapore’s Chinatown. Marked these days by a street light up, the anticipation of the festival also sees a host of events and activities as well as the crowd pulling Chinatown Chinese New Year Street Bazaar offering new year delicacies and must-haves, and an invasion of rats this year for the Year of the Rat.

Trengganu Street last weekend.

Anticipating the arrival of spring in Chinatown.

Rats have invaded for the Year of the Rat.

 


Heritage & Food Trail

Always a hit, the nightly stage shows run from 8 to 10.30 pm from 4 to 24 January 2020 at Kreta Ayer Square, opened each night with a lion dance performance. Another well received activity is the Heritage & Food Trail, which takes participants on a historical and cultural tour through the streets of Chinatown, culminating with a feast of Cantonese delights at Singapore’s largest hawker centre, Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Tickets for the trail, which run on 11, 12, 18 and 19 January, can be purchased at Kreta Ayer  Community Club at $15/- per participant or online (with a 10% discount) at:

11 Jan : https://go.gov.sg/heritagefoodtrail11012020

12 Jan : https://go.gov.sg/heritagefoodtrail12012020

18 Jan : https://go.gov.sg/heritagefoodtrail18012020

19 Jan : https://go.gov.sg/heritagefoodtrail19012020

Food, glorious Cantonese food from some of the 200 food stalls in Chinatown Complex Food Centre.

Yes 933 deejays on the heritage and food trail.

Mural hunting during the heritage and food trial.

The “disneyfication” of Chinatown is complete.


A Walk through Temple Street

Photos of the always Colourful Street Bazaar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Parting Glances: Losing a Pearl

11 10 2019

Pearls Centre 1977A look back at Pearls Centre, which was demolished back in 2016 due to the construction of the Thomson-East Coast Line. The site for the mixed-use development was sold as part of the second wave of the Urban Renewal Department’s (later URA or Urban Redevelopment Authority) “Sale of Sites” programme. Initiated in 1967, the programme was an initiative to move urban redevelopment and renewal through the sale of sites acquired by the Government to private developers. and was initiated in 1967. Completed in 1977 – in an era of similarly designed buildings, Pearls Centre featured a 10-storey podium block with four floors of retail space and a multi-storey car park. A 12-floor block of luxury apartments was put up above the podium. The developers for the building was Outram Realty and the architect, Architectural Design Group. Its cinema would gain notoriety for screening R(A) movies.

The photographs below were taken in 2014/2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





The Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery

14 07 2019

A peek at the wonderful little pocket of joy that Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery is. Located at the at the Kreta Ayer Community Club, the 100 sq. m gallery opens today (14 July 2019).

An effort by the National Heritage Board (NHB) and the Kreta Ayer Community Club, the gallery is a showcase of Kreta Ayer’s and Chinatown’s intangible forms of cultural heritage that have provided the area with much colour. This is seen through objects, photographs and personal effects of both practitioners as well as Kreta Ayer’s former residents, organised along five themes: Chinese opera, nanyin music, Chinese puppetry, Chinese painting and calligraphy, and tea drinking and appreciation.

Cantonese opera, a big part of the Kreta Ayer cultural scene is especially well represenred through the display of costumes, scores, stage objects and other memorabilia such as autographed photos. The displays also trace the evolution of the genre of Chinese opera from street performances to theatre based ones.

The gallery will open daily from 12 to 8 pm.


A set of six photographs featuring opera performers, undated On loan from Cindy Chat. This set of photographs forms part of Cindy Chat’s collection of opera-related paraphernalia. Cindy is an avid opera fan who used to follow her father backstage where she would meet opera performers. Fascinated by their dazzling costumes and elaborate make-up, Cindy would approach the performers for photographs and autographs.

 


 





Discovering 5 Kadayanallur Street (2019)

10 06 2019

COMPLETED

The 2019 edition of Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets, a series of State Property Visits that has been organised with the support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) starts this June with a revisit to No. 5 Kadayanallur Street.

Two(2) sessions are being held on 22 June 2019 (a Saturday), each lasting 45 minutes.

Each session is limited to 25 participants.

Participants must be of ages 18 and above.

Registration is necessary. Do note that registration for both sessions closed at 6.50 pm on 10 June 2019. 

Updates (info only) on the 2019 series will also be provided at this link and on The Long and Winding Road on Facebook.


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More information:





Bearing a burden through the streets of Singapore

22 01 2019

Chetty (or Punar) Pusam / Thaipusam

With a greater proportion of folks in Chinatown preoccupied its dressing-up for the Chinese New Year on Sunday, a deeply-rooted Singaporean tradition that took place in the same neighbourhood, “Chetty Pusam”, seemed to have gone on almost unnoticed.

Involving the Chettiar community, “Chetty Pusam” is held as a prelude to the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. It sees an especially colourful procession of Chettiar kavidi bearers who carry the burden from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road through some streets of Chinatown to the Sri Mariamman Temple and then the Central Business District before ending at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.

The procession coincides with the return leg of the Silver Chariot‘s journey. The chariot, bears Lord Murugan or Sri Thendayuthapani (in whose honour the festival of Thaipusam is held) to visit his brother Sri Vinayagar (or Ganesh) in the early morning of the eve of Thaipusam and makes its return in the same evening.


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More Photographs of Thaipusam in Singapore:






Lighting the Mid-Autumn up

6 09 2018

Lighting this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival is the story of Chinatown, as is interpreted by the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee – the organisers of the annual Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival. Centred around the theme of “Our Chinatown, Our Mid-Autumn” the celebrations this year aims to recapture images of Singapore’s Ngau Cheh Sui / Gu Chia Chwee in the 1950s and 1960s as well as the lives of the Chinese immigrants in the area.

Central to the celebrations is the OfficiaL Street Light-up, which will brighten the streets of the “Greater Town” – as Chinatown was also referred to in the past in the various Chinese languages – from 8 September to 8 October 2018. The light-up features more than a thousand lanterns including a 10-metre tall centrepiece, a Chinese junk, at the meeting of New Bridge Road / Eu Tong Sen Street with Upper Cross Street. There are also some 168 sculptured lanterns depicting some of the more visible trades-people of Chinatown’s past such as Samsui women, coolies, street hawkers and rickshaw-men; as well as 1288 lanterns made to resemble paper accordion lanterns over New Bridge Road, Eu Tong Sen Street and South Bridge Road. An additional 180 hand-painted lanterns with orchids, peonies and hydrangeas will also decorate South Bridge Road.

As usual, there will also be a host of activities during the month long celebrations, the highlights of which are an attempt to set a new Singapore record for the number of oriental masks worn at the same time, the regular street bazaar, nightly stage shows – with dragon dances during the weekends, and a Mass Lantern Walk. There is also a new night event this year – the Singapore Culture and Heritage Trail – Cantonese Chapter: “Reliving the Yesteryears Once More”. Over two nights, on 21 and 22 September, participants are taken back in time to the colourful night markets of the Chinatown of old. There is a particular focus on the Cantonese, whose presence was in Chinatown and there is an opportunity to taste lost-in-time Cantonese cuisine as well as a getai.

More information at : http://chinatownfestivals.sg/.


A sneak peek at this year’s Official Street Light-up:


 





Discovering 5 Kadayanallur Street

22 06 2018

Next on the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits, being organised with the support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), is to No. 5 Kadayanallur Street on 7 July 2018. The visit is limited to 40 participants of ages 18 and above. Registration (limited to 40 participants of ages 18 and above) may be made by filling the form at this link (fully subscribed as of 1707 hrs 22 Jun 2018).

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More information:





The hospital at Mount Erskine and what may now be Singapore’s oldest lift

27 05 2018

Rather nondescript in appearance, the building at 5 Kadayanallur Street conceals a wealth of little secrets. Last used as the corporate offices of a department store in Singapore, there are few who know of the building’s chequered past and of its use as a hospital before and during the Japanese Occupation. Another interesting piece of history that the building holds is an old lift. Installed in 1929, the Smith, Major and Stevens beauty – complete with wooden panels and sets of collapsible gates – may be the oldest lift now in existence in Singapore.

The rather nondescript looking building at Kadayanallur Street – last used as CK Tang’s Coporate Offices.

The building, which has been described as Singapore’s first modernist building, was completed in 1923 as the St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital (for Women and Children). Designed by Swan and Maclaren’s Harry Robinson, the odd shape of its plan can be attributed to the site that was found to accommodate what would have been a small but very important institution. The first dedicated facility that the St. Andrew’s Mission set up – it had previously run several dispensaries, including one at Upper Cross Street with a small in-patient section – it was established to provide impoverished residents with illnesses living in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of Chinatown with access to care and relief from suffering.

The inside of the building – the floor where the hospital’s staff quarters were located.

The installation of a lift – retrofitted in 1929 – was considered then to be a step forward in the treatment of children afflicted with a rare, debilitating and extremely painful tuberculosis of the bones and joints. The disease was first recorded in 1923 – the year of the hospital’s opening and in 1926, six children were hospitalised for it. The only opportunity that could be afforded for these patients to gain access to sunlight and fresh air, essential to treatment, was the roof of the building. This – due to movement of the affected limbs of the children being “painful and injurious” – would not have been possible without a lift.

The 1929 vintage Smith, Major and Stevens lift, which I believe may be the oldest now in Singapore, is still – if not for the shut-off of electrical supply – in working condition.

The hospital building was evacuated in December 1941 following an air raid and was never to be used by the mission again. The Japanese ran a civilian hospital for women and children, the Shimin Byoin, in it from April 1942. After the war, the building was used as a medical store. The Mission was only able to reopen the women and children’s hospital in January 1949 after it was able to acquire and refit the former Globe Building at Tanjong Pagar Road (some may remember the SATA Clinic there). More recently, the Kadayanallur Street building (incidentally Kadayanallur Street was only named in 1952 – after the Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League) was also used as the Maxwell Road Outpatient Dispensary (from 1964 to 1998).

The roof deck that featured in the treatment of children with tuberculosis of the bones and joints.

A rare opportunity may be provided by the Singapore Land Authority to visit the building and also see the lift, through the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of guided State Property Visits, possibly sometime in July. The visit will also give participants an opportunity to discover much more on the building and the area and also of the building’s history. Do look out for further information on the visit and how and when to register on this site and also at The Long and Winding Road on Facebook.

More photographs : on Flickr.

See also: Story of a lift nearing 90 (Sunday Times, 27 May 2018)


Further information about Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:


 





Kavadis on Keong Saik

8 02 2018

In photographs: the start of the colourful procession of Chettiar kavidis from the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Saik Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The procession, along with a Silver Chariot procession, is held every year as part of Chetty Pusam on the eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.


Thaipusam in Singapore:


 





What’s crowing this Chinese New Year

6 01 2017

The highly anticipated annual Chinatown Street Light-up will be launched on Saturday 7 January 2016, kicking-off a seven-week long celebration in the precinct aimed at ushering in and celebrating the Chinese Year of the Rooster. This year’s light-up features the largest number of lanterns made for a Chinatown celebration – some 5,500 in all – including a centrepiece giant rooster that crows across the road on the divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road at the streets’  meeting with Upper Cross Street.

The 13 metre tall rooster lantern with a 100 metre long tail.

The 13 metre tall rooster lantern with long tail feathers that crows every now and then.

Designed by students from the SUTD, the LED lit lanterns along the centre divider illustrate the stages in the life of the rooster and impart life’s values through the 55 roosters, 64 hens, 134 chicks and 56 golden eggs on display. In addition to this there are also 1000 peony flower lanterns along New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street and 4,100 peach blossom lanterns, 21 peach blossom trees and 90 lanterns along South Bridge Road. The crowing rooster, the centrepiece, measures 13 metres tall, 7 metres wide and with the inclusion of its tail feathers, 100 metres in length.

Lessons from the life of the rooster - on the centre divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road.

Lessons from the life of the rooster – along the centre divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road.

Peonies over New Bridge Road.

Peonies over New Bridge Road.

Peach Blossoms over South Bridge Road.

Peach Blossoms over South Bridge Road.

In addition to the light-up, the Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations also feature the popular annual street bazaar, which will run from 6 to 27 January 2017. The bazaar will feature some 440 stalls, which will line Pagoda, Smith, Sago Temple and Trengganu Streets, offering festive goodies and decorations among other items and brings great atmosphere to the streets of Chinatown.

The giant rooster - seen at street level.

The giant rooster – seen at street level.

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Chickens, chickens everywhere.

There is also a youthful theme being introduced to this year’s event with YouthEats @ Temple Street and YHFlea: Come Lepark edition. YouthEats will see 12 entrepreneurs with unique food offerings, while YHFlea, being held on 14 and 15 January, is a flea market that will feature 100 local brands and independent designer. Other activities to look out for are Walking Trails being held on 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22 January at 3.30 to 5.00 pm for which pre-registration is required at www.chinatownfestivals.sg, the Official Light-up and Opening Ceremony on 7 January, Nightly Stage Shows, the International Lion Dance Competition – for which more information can be found at http://chinatownfestivals.sg/chinatown-chinese-new-year-celebrations-2017/.





The Moon Goddess descends to colour Chinatown

2 09 2016

One of my favourite times of the year as a child was the Mooncake Festival, as the Mid-Autumn Festival is commonly referred to in Singapore.  It is a time for mooncake shopping, running down to the bakery or sundry shop to buy pig-shaped pastries packed in plastic baskets resembling those commonly used then to transport live pigs, and the excitement that came with picking out a cellophane lantern from one of the colourful displays that seemed to decorate the fronts of just about every sundry shop there was found in the neighbourhood.

The Moon Goddess, Chang'e, will descend on Chinatown this Mid-Autumn Festival.

The Moon Goddess, Chang’e, will descend on Chinatown this Mid-Autumn Festival (played by a dancer who will perform at the opening ceremony on 3 September).

The festival is one I still look forward to with much anticipation. The celebration is one that at a community level seems to be celebrated on a much grander scale these days and one thing in more recent times to look out for is the colourful displays of lanterns at several events being held across Singapore. One event that always seems to draw the crowds is the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens Consultative Community’s (KA-KS CCC) Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival and its colourful street light-up. The event this year returns on Saturday 3 September 2016 and will certainly not disappoint with its display of 900 hand crafted lanterns as well as a host of activities that will take visitors on a journey back to the stories at the very origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown and its annual light-up is always something to look forward to.

The Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown and its annual light-up is always something to look forward to.

Light clouds over Chinatown this Mid-Autumn.

Magical light clouds will be seen over Chinatown this Mid-Autumn.

The centrepiece of this year’s light-up is a 12 metre high sculptured lantern. Located on the divider at the junction of Upper Cross Street with Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road, it depicts the moon deity Chang’e. It is in honour of the goddess that the festival is commemorated. The moon goddess is accompanied by three other large scale lanterns, two of which are also characters central to the folktale that serves as the basis for the festival, Hou Yi and the Jade Rabbit. The other large scale lantern is of the Moon Palace in which Chang’e resides. These can also be found along the divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road.

The 12m high Chang'e lantern.

The 12m high Chang’e lantern.

The large-scale moon palace lantern.

The large-scale moon palace lantern.

And the jade rabbit with the elixir of immortality.

And the jade rabbit with the elixir of immortality.

The characters and the Moon Palace, are also represented in a smaller scale over South Bridge Road, nestled in magical looking coloured clouds. Hou Yi, the archer, is depicted taking aim at the nine suns that folklore tells us he brought down. The act, which left us with one sun, saved the Earth from a fate that we now seem again to be threatened with.  The Jade Rabbit, is seen pounding away in the clouds. A resident of the moon, it is the rabbit who prepares the elixir of immortality, a dose of which Hou Yi was rewarded. A popular version of the tale has it that in a bid to prevent it from falling into the hands of a would be thief, Chang’e swallowed her husband’s elixir. As an immortal, she could no longer live on earth and was sent to the moon, the celestial body closest to her husband. Clouds are also seen above Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road and altogether there are about 900 lanterns, the result of a collaboration between the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and expert craftsmen from China, on display.  LED lighting is being employed for the first time, saving some 70% in energy usage. The illuminations will colour Chinatown for about a month from 3 to 30 September 2016.

Hou Yi, Chang'e's husband and the archer who shot nine or ten suns scorching the earth, also features.

Hou Yi, Chang’e’s husband and the archer who shot nine or ten suns scorching the earth, also features.

As does the moon palace and the jade rabbit.

As does the moon palace and the jade rabbit preparing the elixir of immortality.

Clouds over New Bridge Road.

Clouds over New Bridge Road.

One thing that also draws the crowds to Chinatown are the festive bazaars. For the event, the ever popular Mid-Autumn bazaar is being held. Lining Pagoda Street, Trengganu Street, Sago Street, Smith Street and the open space in front of People’s Park Complex, the bazaar is always one to soak in the festive atmosphere and crowds are expected to throng streets that will be filled with stalls that offer a range of festive goodies such as traditional mooncakes and delicacies, as well  as decorations, lanterns and much, much more. The bazaar start a day earlier on Friday 2 September, and will be held until the night of the festival proper, which falls on Thursday 15 September 2016,

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There are also many other activities to look out for, such as the popular Chinatown Mid-Autumn Walking Trail. The trail, now into its third year, is free. Registration is however required as each trail session is limited to 10 persons. Sessions will be conducted at 3.30 pm on 4, 10 and 11 September 2016 and lasts about an hour and a half. Registration, on a first-come-first-served basis, can be made at this link.

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Another popular activity is the Mass  Lantern Walk at which 3000 participants are expected. This will be held on Sunday 11 September 2016 and will follow a route around Chinatown. The walk commences at Kreta Ayer Square at 7 pm and will end at the Main Stage in front of Lucky Chinatown at New Bridge Road.

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For the first time, the event will feature a Learning Journey. This closed activity is being conducted for a group of 200 students on 10 September in an effort to have the younger ones better appreciate Chinatown and the story behind the festival. Other activities during the festive period include nightly stage shows that feature performers from Singapore and also from China and Celebrating the Moon at Chinatown Heritage Centre (normal admission charges apply). More information can be found at http://chinatownfestivals.sg/.

 

 





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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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.





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, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

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.





Devotion II

10 07 2013

A photograph of a single person kneeling in prayer before the closed doors of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in South Bridge Road, Singapore, at 7.50 pm on 13 June 2013. The temple is a fairly new addition to the area’s landscape, once dominated by crowded shophouses and street markets, having been opened in 2007.

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