The moon between the coconut palms

20 06 2016

THE MOON BETWEEN THE COCONUT PALMS:
A guest post by Edmund Arozoo, once of Jalan Hock Chye, who now reminisces in the light of the silvery Adelaide moon …

 


Edmund Moon Coconut Palms 1

(Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Digital Photography has indeed simplified the task of producing quality images of the moon. The ability to mount my old 600 mm manual mirror lens to the body of my DSLR has allowed me to capture some good images indeed. However to push the challenge further I have for past few years been a keen “Moon transit” photographer i.e. capturing aircraft as they fly across the face of the moon.  I am fortunate that where I now live the Moon’s orbit and most of the commercial flight paths make it easy for me to set up my gear in my back balcony or backyard to achieve this. In addition there are many on-line apps that allow real time monitoring of flight paths. However this quest requires lots of patience and luck. Often there are long periods of waiting in-between flights. During these breaks I find myself staring at the moon and my mind wanders back to my kampong days in Singapore.  I start thinking of the significance the moon played then and the beliefs both religious and superstitious of the various races and groups of people in my kampong.

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

Copy of an old slide image taken in Jalan Hock Chye digitally post processed (Photograph: Edmund Arozoo)

One colourful memory that I always chuckle when I think about it is the ritual that my Chinese neighbours undertook during the eclipse of the moon.  I remember as a kid suddenly hearing the din of pots and pans being struck constantly. Even the large kerosene tins would be brought into play. Most of the Chinese households would be involved and I learnt that the belief was that a Dragon was swallowing the Moon and the noise created was to scare the dragon from completely removing the Moon from the sky. This ritual did go on regularly whenever there was an eclipse for most of my early years but as society became educated the practice faded away.

When I relate this to some of my friends a few remember this practice but others think I made it up.

The significance of the moon is central in Chinese culture. Most if not all festivals are tagged to the lunar calendar

Likewise the Indian celebrations are also pegged to their own lunar calendar. The two main ones Deepavali  which occurs  during the New moon of Ashvin (Hindu calendar) and  Thaipusam which  is celebrated during  the full moon day of the Tamil month of Thai

In the past the Malay Hari Raya dates were determined by the sighting of the new moon by local religious authorities. During those pre mobile phone years the method of relaying the successful sighting was by the use of carbide cannons. Carbide was mixed with water in the hollow of a bamboo cylinder and when the fuse was lit a small explosion took place and this could be heard for miles in the quiet of the evenings. When this was heard in a kampong one of the Malay families would then in turn fire a cannon and the message would then spread from kampong to kampong until the entire Malay community across the island would be informed to start celebrating the following day.

For the Eurasian and Christian households the main festival linked to the moon was Easter which is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The other Holy days of Lent are adjusted accordingly. As kids when we were brought by our parents for the traditional “visitations of churches” on Maundy Thursday we often noticed the bright nearly full or full moon as we walked along the Queen Street / Victoria Street area. The significance of the moon was unknown to us or rather we were more focussed on the treats that we were rewarded with for being well behaved. Treats like freshly baked Hot Cross Buns from the two well-known bakeries around the vicinity “Ah Teng” and “The Red House Bakery”. The other treat would be the Kueh Putu Piring (or Kueh Tutu as it is now known as).

Similarly the dates of Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday vary each year. The former celebrated forty days after Easter, and the latter ten days after the Ascension (50 after Easter).

When Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, you can just imagine the reaction from the different families in the kampong. There was disbelief, taunting and scepticism.

The full or near-full moon was often a blessing if you came home late at night because it lighted your way home. There were no street lights in the lanes leading to our houses. With the moonlight we could avoid the portholes and on rainy days the resultant puddles that were ever so present.

However the moonlight also did cast numerous shadows from the trees and bushes. With movies like “Pontianak” on our minds combined with the fragrant scent of the newly blossomed frangipani flowers walking home usually turned into a quick paced trot.

I guess these days in Singapore, the Moon between coconut palms is only a recollection of some of the older generation. Moonlight between high-rise would be the norm.


Edmund’s other experiences of a Singapore that doesn’t exist anymore:


 

 





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.

JeromeLim-4069

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.

JeromeLim-8620

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.

JeromeLim-4231

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 .

JeromeLim-4171

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.

JeromeLim-4170

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.

JeromeLim-4057

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.

JeromeLim-4035

 


Preliminaries

JeromeLim-4050
JeromeLim-4053

JeromeLim-4068

JeromeLim-4074


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.

JeromeLim-4143

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

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

JeromeLim-4154

JeromeLim-4158

JeromeLim-4159

JeromeLim-4162

JeromeLim-4164

JeromeLim-4166

JeromeLim-4172

JeromeLim-4179

JeromeLim-4182

JeromeLim-4193

JeromeLim-4207

JeromeLim-4208


The Barong

JeromeLim-4216

JeromeLim-4222

JeromeLim-4223

JeromeLim-4232

JeromeLim-8620

JeromeLim-8677


Performers being brought out of the trance

JeromeLim-4172

JeromeLim-4228

JeromeLim-8697

JeromeLim-8710






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.