The ghosts of Christmases past

13 12 2021

First turned-on 37 years ago today on 13th December 1984, Orchard Road’s annual Christmas Light-up is now in its 38th edition. Bringing cheer especially in the last two years with the uncertainty of the pandemic looming over us, the light-up has become a constant in Singapore bringing with it symbols of celebration that have actually little to do with Singapore or for that matter, with the celebration of Christmas. So, how did these symbols come to represent Christmas? When did the practice of lighting-up for Christmas even start? How did Christmas come to be commemorated with such zeal in in Christian minority Singapore? How did what is the only form of lighting-up we are now allowed along Singapore’s main shopping street come about? We may have to call up a few ghosts of Christmases past, to find the answer … 


Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a universal celebration. This is also the case in modern Singapore in which the year-end is now very much anticipated for its promise of cooler weather, as a time for holidays, and for the feeding and shopping frenzy that it seems to bring to Orchard Road –Singapore’s main shopping street. It is a time when the street is also transformed into a fairyland of Christmas lights and is filled with popular symbols that we now associate with the celebration of Christmas. It is not hard to miss a Christmas tree, that jolly and rather rotund figure whom we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and representations of wintery scenes and snow – all of which not only have nothing to do with balmy Singapore or for that matter, little to do with the Christmas message.  

Orchard Road during the Christmas Light-Up, 2016

The attempt on my part to tie all of these to the “Ghost of Christmas Past” – a character from Charles Dickens’ well-loved tale “A Christmas Carol” – is quite deliberate. Published in 1843, the tale served as the inspiration for how Christmas would be celebrated in Britain, and throughout the English speaking world. This ultimately, also set the expectations for what we in the modern world and in an urban setting, now consider to be Christmassy.

idPublished in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have given us the idea of that wintry Christmas.

Our rather unrealistic expectations in dreaming of that White Christmas, is one of the things that “A Christmas Carol” must surely have inspired. While such wintery scenes isn’t something we might immediately associate with London – the city in which Dickens’ tale is set, it was just what Dickens depicted in his tale drawing on his experience of Christmas in his formative years. It was a particularly cold decade into which Dickens was born into, during which the Thames actually froze over on more than one occasion, and this may just be why we now all dream of that white Christmas.  

A frost fair on the River Thames 1814.

The greeting “Merry Christmas” is another thing that “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have inspired. Used in abundance throughout the tale, the greeting would find its way to the very first Christmas cards, produced in the same year the book was published.

Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley, 1843.

One symbol that Dickens did not inspire was Santa Claus – that jolly and rather rotund representation of the Greek saint, Saint Nicholas, whom we often see getting stuck in the chimney. This version of how the saint is represented can be attributed to Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” – published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 – was what influenced how generations of children see the ancient saint. Saint Nicholas wasn’t quite depicted as a merry figure prior to this, or even in even in Nast’s initial renderings of the saint going back to the 1863.

Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881

While Nast did provide the basis for how we see Santa Claus today, he was by no means the first to identify St Nicholas – Sinterklass to the Dutch – as Santa Claus in the English speaking world, nor the first to sketch him without his saintly robes. An 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore is often cited as the basis for the identification of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus. There is however, an anonymous 8-verse poem that was published two years before Moore’s poem, in which “Santeclaus” was illustrated. This was perhaps the first publication in the English language to both identify and depict a modern “Santa”.

1821 depiction of “Santaclaus” accompanying an 8-verse poem.

For many homes, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Christmas Tree, a tradition that has its roots in continental Europe, particularly in Germany. Like Santa and the idea of a White Christmas, this found its way into the English speaking world in the 1800s. The popularity of decorating fir trees in England took off with the publication of an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. Prince Albert, who was of German origins, is said to have introduced the custom to the royal household. The custom seemed to have arrived to the shores of America, where there were also many settlers of German origin, a little earlier, as can seen in a picture published in 1845.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree (published in the Illustrated London News in December 1848).
Picture of a Christmas Tree published in Philadelphia in 1845.

Christmas trees were initially decorated with candles for illumination, a practice that was rather hazardous. An invention in 1879, one of humankind’s most important – the lightbulb – would lend itself to both greater safety and also to the street light-ups of the modern day. The lightbulb’s inventor, Thomas Edison is in fact also credited with inspiring electric Christmas lighting.  Edison’s business partner and friend, Edward Johnson, produced the first string of Christmas Lights in 1882, getting his idea from Edison’s display of lights outside his lab during Christmas two years earlier. It would however take a couple of decades, when electricity became widely available, that the invention would eventually achieve its potential. 

Thomas Edison inspired Edward Johnson’s String of Christmas Lights.

It would then take another couple of decades before lighting up for Christmas became an established practice. Initially, buildings were lit-up individually for Christmas – such as was the case of the Potomac Power Company’s building in 1920. However in 1923, America’s very first National Christmas tree was put up in by President Calvin Coolidge, which was lit by 3000 electric lights.  The decade would also see light-ups on streetwise scale being introduced, such as that of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, California in 1923 and by the 1930s, fairly elaborate Christmas street light-ups seem to be a norm in cities across the US.

Potomac Electric Power, Christmas greetings, 1920 / National Christmas Tree, 1923
(source: Library of Congress)
Christmas Tree Lane, Altadena, 1923 / Christmas Lights, Los Angeles, 1937
(sources Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection / Herman J Schultheis Collection)

The practice of illuminating buildings also made its way across the “pond” to Britain in the 1930s, with large stores such as Selfridges on Oxford Street, lighting up for Christmas since 1935. Britain would only see its first organised street Christmas light-up in the post-World War 2 era. This was introduced in 1954, in an attempt to liven up a dreary post-war London. Lighting up Regent Street, the annual light-up continues to this very day.

Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, 1935.
Regent Street, London, 1955 / Regent Street, London, 2018
(2018 photo: Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road)

In Singapore, Christmases were initially celebrated in a big way only by Christians and among the colonial elite who brought with them traditions that included Christmas Trees and Santas, the spirit of giving, and also the excesses that came with the season. From the outset, Christmas seemed as much a religious event as it was a celebration for the shops and on the evidence of advertisements for the sale of Christmas goods that go as far back as the mid 1800s, stores would be stocked up for the season. What many had on offer were toys and other gifts, foodstuff, and ornaments as is the case today. It would seem that it was also very much a celebration for the children.

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Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 6 Dec 1906; The Straits Times, 26 Dec 1912; Daily Mercury, 27 Dec 1941

Homes, churches and certain offices, were initially the places that would be gaily decorated. Decoration -wise, stores that catered to the European clientele, would welcome Christmas in a big way only after the war. Decorations initially involved simple decorations, which on evidence of old photographs, became more elaborate as the years went by. The idea of fake snow, which we may think of as a more recent introduction, actually arrived here as far back as 1949. It was Robinsons in Raffles Place that provided the residents of Singapore with that very first “white Christmas”!

“Snow in Singapore”, Straits Times, 6 Dec 1949.
Christmas Decorations in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

Singapore would have to wait until 1984 for its first Christmas street light-up. This came at the climax of the celebration of Singapore’s 25 years of Nation Building. The year was one when the economy was slowing. An energy-saving drive was in full swing. The light-up was however given the green light in an effort to boost Orchard Road’s flagging reputation as a tourism destination. With permission obtained to introduce the light-up, the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) looked to the light-ups in other Asian cities, particularly Hong Kong, for inspiration.

Christmas Light-up along Orchard road in the early days (Postcards via Roots.sg)

With the aim of promoting Singapore as a vibrant city, the board financed the project, which was the brainchild of Dr Wong Kwei Cheong, then Minister of State for Trade and Industry and chairman of STPB. Among the organisers of that first light up were the Singapore Hotel Association, Singapore Retail Merchants Association and National Association of Travel Agents, Singapore. Turned on by Dr Wong on 13 December 1984,  the light-up featured 100,000 light bulbs installed along a two kilometre stretch from Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Rendezvous Hotel) to the Istana. The cost of lighting was kept to S$30 per hour and the display was said to have formed a “tunnel of light” through Orchard Road.

The Orchard Road Christmas Light-up in 2013

Encouraged by the success of the first light-up, which lasted a matter of just three weeks, STPB decided to continue with it on an annual basis. The success would also spawn similar light-ups for the major festivals: for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, for Ramadan/Hari Raya Puasa in Geylang Serai, and for Deepavali in Little India in 1985. 

Deepavali Light-up in Little India (2021)

Decorations for the light-ups were relatively simple initially. The introduction of the “Best Decorated Complex” – now the “Best Dressed Building” – would provide a spark for building owners such as Centrepoint – a regular winner – to come up with more elaborate decorations. One example is the Fairy Tale Castle, that Centrepoint was turned into in 1988. With the turn of the century attempts were also made to introduce different themes and colour schemes on an annual basis with each year’s light-up seemingly an improvement on the last. More recently, there have also been growing concerns about the choice of themes, with some feeling that they are a distraction and a deviation from the religious aspects of Christmas. An example of this was the Disney-themed ligh-up in 2018.

Fairy Tale Castle Centrepoint was turned into in 1988 (source: Roots.sg)

Since 2019, light-ups have also been scaled down, with the last two in 2020 and 2021 being put up during the time of the pandemic. As we moved towards the 40th year of the light-up in 2023, it would certainly be nice to see us move away from the tried and tested themes, and from the use of symbols that reflect a more tropical celebration, or perhaps one that will show Singapore as Singapore rather than the clone of any other big city anywhere in the rest of the world Singapore has seemed to become.





Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.


Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014





An Abundant Celebration

14 01 2021

2020 could be thought of having been a lean year. Much of the year was dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout as a result of it. As we move towards the halfway point in the first month of the new year, there is renewed hope. It is perhaps apt that the first cultural festival that we celebrate in 2021, the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, is all about celebrating abundance.

The Tamil harvest festival of Pongal brings life and colour to Singapore’s Little India.

One thing that Pongal brings to Singapore and in particular to the streets of Singapore’s Little India is great colour. Even if the situation on the ground does seem much less subdued, this seems to also be the case this year. A walk around Campbell Lane, Clive Street and Dunlop Street last evening — the eve of the festival, the colourful displays of festival essentials such as decorated clay pongal pots, floral garlands, stalks of sugarcane, de-husked coconuts and fresh produce, could be seen. The festival, which heralds the arrival of the Tamil month of Thai is celebrated over a four day period in mid-January. The first day of Thai, the festival day proper, falls on 14 January this year.


Sights and sounds of Pongal on the streets of Little India





Thaipusam 2020

9 02 2020

Photographs of Thaipusam, taken in and around the Sri Srinvasa Perumal Temple. The colourful annual festival, celebrated by the South Indian Hindu community, sees a procession of kavadis carried along a 4 kilometre route from the Sri Srinvasa Temple on Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (Chettiars Temple) on Tank Road.



Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:





Preparing for the harvest festival

12 01 2020

One of the great joys of living in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Singapore, is the array of festivals wonderful festivals that bring life and colour to the streets. Just as Chinatown prepares to welcome the Chinese New Year this January, we see Little India come to life for the Tamil harvest festival Pongal. Besides the annual light-ups, the two ethnic precincts also feature crowded street bazaars with the festival essentials on offer.

In Little India, the Pongal is especially colourful with displays of pongal clay pots, produce representing the harvest such as sugarcane – adding much flavour the area around Campbell Lane – where the street bazaar is set up in the days leading up to the festival. There is also a chance to see livestock in the form of cattle and goats, which are brought in for the celebrations each year.

The celebration of the festival proper, begins with the eve – the last day of the Tamil month of Margazhi, which falls on 14 January of the western calendar and carries on for three more days. A description of the festival is  provided by Mr Manohar Pillai in a post on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“:

Pongal is the biggest and most important festival for the Tamilians, since ancient times and transcends all religious barriers since it signifies thanks giving to nature and domestic animals. Cattle, cows, goats, chickens are integral part of a farmer in India. It is celebrated for three days in Tamilnadu starting from 15th to 17th January. Vegetarian food will be served only in Hindu households. Thanksgiving prayers will be offered to the Sun, Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Ether, without these life cannot be sustained on Mother Earth. The celebrations comes on close to the harvest season which just ended and Jan 15 is the beginning of the new Tamil calendar.

Clay Pots are used to cook flavoured rice with traditional fire wood in the open air and facing the early morning Eastern Sun. The Sun’s early morning rays are supposedly to bring benevolence to the household. The cooked rice is distributed to all the members of the household and with it the festivities begins. Everyone wears new clothes and very old and useless clothes are burnt the previous night.

The next day the farmer turns his attention to the animals especially the Cattle and Cows.

The third day all people celebrate it with gaiety and grandly.

More on the festival and how it is celebrated in Little India can be found in these posts:


More photographs taken this year:


 





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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





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:






Panguni Uthiram and a sugarcane kavadi

31 03 2018

Besides being Good Friday, the 30 of March 2018 – being the day of the full moon – also saw several other religious festivals being celebrated. One, Panguni Uthiram, is celebrated by the Hindus on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Panguni. The celebration of the festival is an especially colourful one at the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple and involves a kavadi procession that goes back to the latter days of the Naval Base when the temple was located off Canberra Road. This year’s celebration was also of special significance – being the first to be held at its newly consecrated rebuilt temple building.

The rebuilt Holy Tree Balasubramaniar Temple. It was consecrated in February this year.


The sugarcane kavadi

Seen at yesterday’s procession: a sugarcane kavadi. The kavadi is less commonly seen and is one with a baby slung from stalks of sugarcane that have been tied together, carried by the baby’s parents. The kavadi is used by couples to offer gratitude to Lord Murugan for the blessing of a baby.


More photographs from the procession:


Panguni Uthiram in previous years:


 





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:


 





Thaipusam 2018 at The Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs

1 02 2018

Thaipusam at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal in photographs:


Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:


 





The Silver Chariot through the streets of Chinatown

30 01 2018

The eve of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam sees the Chetty Pusam Silver Chariot procession take place.  The procession is in two parts. The first leg, which takes place in the early morning, sees Lord Murugan (also Sri Thendayuthapani) brought from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road to the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Saik Road to spend the day with his brother Ganesh (Sri Vinayagar). A stop is made along this leg at the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Murugan’s and Lord Vinayagar’s mother, Sri Mariamman or Parvati.

The Chariot bearing Lord Murugan makes a stop at the Sri Mariamman Temple along South Bridge Road,

A second part leaves the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple in the afternoon and makes its way back to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple. Due to the early start of the main Thaipusam kavadi procession (brought about by a lunar eclipse occurring just after sundown on Thaipusam), the chariot is scheduled to leave at about 2.30 pm this afternoon. A procession of Chettiar kavadis will also leave the temple for Tank Road at about 1.30 pm.


Photographs taken of the Silver Chariot procession this morning:


Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:


 





Good Friday at the Portuguese Church

15 04 2017

Good Friday, which for believers marks the day Jesus Christ was crucified, has been commemorated in a very visible way on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Church for more than a century. Conducted  very much in the fashion of the Iberian peninsula, the elaborate procession takes place at the end of the church’s Good Friday service during which the crucifixion is reenacted using a life-sized image of Christ that is lowered and placed on a bier for the procession.

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The church, known also as the Portuguese Church due to its origin in the Portuguese Mission and it having been a parish of the Diocese of Macau until 1981, is the spiritual home of the Portuguese Eurasian community. The community is one of the oldest migrant linked communities in the region. It is on Good Friday, when the religious traditions of the community are most visible, that we are perhaps reminded of this. The procession, the holding of which goes back more than a century, attracts large numbers of worshippers from all across Singapore and at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, saw thousands packed into the church’s compound with many more spilling onto Queen Street.



More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:






Photographs of Thaipusam 2017

9 02 2017

Today’s Thaipusam, an annual Hindu festival celebrated in Singapore that being a most colourful of spectacles, is perhaps also a most photographed. The festival sees a procession of kavadis – burdens carried by devotees of Lord Murugan – from the Sri Srinivas Perumal Temple at Serangoon Road to the Sri Thendayuthapani (Chettiars) Temple in Tank Road.

More information on the festival can be found at: http://sttemple.com/pages/16~thaipusam and at the following links:


Photographs taken at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple this morning:

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The Thaipusam Chariot Procession

8 02 2017

One of Singapore’s more colourful religious festivals, Thaipusam, will be celebrated tomorrow, primarily by the Hindus of the Southern Indian community. As always, the festival is preceded by a procession of a silver chariot carrying Lord Murugan, whom the festival honours.

There are two parts to the procession here in Singapore. The first part, which takes place in the morning, sees Lord Murugan transported from the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple at Tank Road to the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Saik Road. Lord Murugan (also known as Sri Thendayuthapani) then spends the day with his brother Sri Vinayagar (or Ganesh) before making the return journey in the evening. On the first leg of the procession, a stop is made at the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Murugan’s and Lord Vinayagar’s mother, Sri Mariamman or Parvati.


Posts related to past celebrations of Thaipusam in Singapore:

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The Chariot Route (2017).


Photographs from the first leg of the procession this morning:

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The Silver Chariot passes the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple along South Bridge Road.

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At the junction of Kreta Ayer Road and Keong Saik Road.

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Arriving at the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple.

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Preparing to carry the image of Lord Murugan into the temple.

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Lowering Lord Murugan.

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Moving into the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple.


 





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/.





Welcoming the stars of the Big Dipper

30 09 2016

The coming of the Chinese ninth month brings two widely celebrated Taoist celebrations to Singapore, both of which  have a connection with water. One, the pilgrimage to the island of Kusu, is held over an entire month. This sees thousands of pilgrims flocking to the island, where a Tua Pek Kong temple and several hill top shrines are located. The other celebration, held over the first nine days of the month, is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷).

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

The Nine Emperor Gods festival is especially interesting. The celebration proper begins with an invitation to the gods – nine stars of the Big Dipper, to descend to earth for an annual sojourn. The often very elaborate invitation ceremony is  traditionally held on the eve of the 1st day of the month. Taking place by the sea or a river, it involves the carriage of the gods on a sedan or a palanquin that is always violently rocked as a sign of a divine presence.

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This year sees the invitation spread out over several days, with a few being held on the eve itself, which falls on Friday 30 September. One that I managed to catch over at East Coast Park was that of the Kim San temple from Jalan Ulu Siglap on 29 September, the photographs of which accompany this post. The festival ends with an equally grand send off, with the gods ascending to the heavens on a burning boat. More on this and the festivalcan be found in a previous post: The Burning Boat.

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Mid-autumn at the Siong Lim

15 09 2016

Illuminated by the glow of a one of the more tasteful displays of lanterns I have seen in Singapore, the Siong Lim temple in Toa Payoh (or Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery) provides a most beautiful setting in which to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. The display, at what is Singapore’s oldest Buddhist monastery, and celebrations held in conjunction with the festival, have been on since Saturday. It will end this evening, the Mid-Autumn Festival proper, with a dragon dance and a mei hua zhuang display, more information on which can be found at the temple’s website.

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Lanterns outside the Mahavira Hall. The hall, which dates back to 1904, is one of two structures within the monastery complex that has been gazetted as a National Monument.

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The 1905 Tian Wang Dian, the second of two structures within the monastery complex gazetted as a National Monument.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

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A fiery September’s evening

12 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong came to life last night, making its way in a dizzying dance around the area of its lair at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.

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Last night’s dance of the fire dragon.

The dance of the dragon has its origins in Guangdong, from where many came from to work in the area’s brick kilns in the mid-1800s. The dance, rarely seen in a Singapore in which tradition has become an inconvenience, came at the close of the temple’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. The celebrations, held over a three day period, also saw a book on the temple’s history being launched. An exhibition on the history of the area is also being held in conjunction with this, which will run until 14 September 2016.

A book on the temple and the community's history was launched.

A book on the temple and the community’s history, A Kampong and its Temple, was launched.

Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Chan Chun Sing - a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing – a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

The parade of the straw dragon through the streets, is also thought to help dissipate anger caused by the disturbance of the land in the area of the temple being felt by the temple’s deities. The area, is once again in the midst of change – with a huge condominium development, Urban Oasis, just next door. The site of the development, incidentally, is linked to the current outbreak of the mosquito borne Zika virus in Singapore.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon's body prior to the dance.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon’s body prior to the dance.

There may perhaps be anger felt at the uncertainty for the future that temple itself faces. The land on which it sits on has long since been acquired for redevelopment by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the temple operates on it only through a Temporary Occupation License. The parcel of land it sits on is one shared with HDB flats that were taken back by the HDB under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the second half of the 2000s and it is left to be seen if the temple will be allowed to continue on the site when the area is eventually redeveloped.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.


The temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), is thought to have its origins in the 1860s, serving a community of Cantonese and Hakka migrant workers employed by the area’s brick kilns, sawmills and sago making factories. The temple moved twice and came to its present site in 1901.

The dance of the fire dragon that is associated with the temple, although long a practice in its place of origin, only came to the temple in the 1980s. The dragon used for the dance is the result of a painstaking process that involves the making of a core using rattan and the plaiting of straw over three months to make the dragon’s body. Lit joss sticks are placed on the body prior to the dance and traditionally, the dragon would be left to burn to allow it to ascend to the heavens.

More information on the temple, its origins and its practices can be found in the following posts:


More photographs:

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Illuminated remembrances at the Wan Qing Yuan

9 09 2016

The terrazzo and mosaic faced playgrounds of yesteryear, symbols today of our longing for a Singapore we have discarded, have come back as lanterns.  Illuminated representations of four of these playgrounds, an elephant, a pelican, the iconic dragon and a watermelon, will decorate the lawn of the Wan Qing Yuan – the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH), for the museum’s Mid-Autumn celebrations. The lantern display is show every evening from 7 to 10 pm from 9 to 18 September.

A pair of lanterns depicting the watermelon playground at Tampines.

A pair of lanterns depicting the watermelon playground at Tampines.

The bulk of SYSNMH’s celebrations will be held over the weekend on 10 and 11 September. Activities to look forward to include lantern making and arts and crafts workshops, evening cultural performances, a public talk and shadow puppetry performances. Admission is free. More information on the Wan Qing Yuan’s celebrations and activities, do visit their Facebook Page.

Lanterns depicting the well-loved playgrounds of yesteryear at the Wan Qing Yuan.

Lanterns depicting the well-loved playgrounds of yesteryear at the Wan Qing Yuan.

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Impressions of the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Wan Qing Yuan.

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A dragon awakens

5 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong, in a rare reprise of the its smoking performance earlier this year, will come alive once again this September on the occasion of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the temple its lair is found in, the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠) . The temple has its origins in Sar Kong (沙崗) or “Sand Ridge, where a community of Cantonese and Hakka coolies had settled in.

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The practice of parading the burning dragon has its origins in Guangdong – the origins of many in the community. Made of straw that has been imported from China, such a dragon would previously have been constructed for the feast day of the temple’s principal deity and sent in flames to the heavens.  In more recent times, such straw dragons would be paraded on an average of once every three years.  This particular dragon, which made for a more recent Chingay Parade, is not burnt but set alight only by the placement of joss sticks on its body.

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More information on the practice, as well as the historic setting for the village and the temple, can be found in the temple’s heritage room. More on the temple and its history can also be found at the post: On Borrowed Time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee.


Schedule for the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee 150th Anniversary Celebrations

A number of events held in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee: Taoist priests from Ching Chung Koon in HK invited here to conduct rituals over 3 days, a seminar on Dabogong (Tua Pek Kong), a heritage exhibition, a book launch, and the finale – the one and only fire dragon dance in Singapore.

9 Sep 2016 (Fri)
0900-1145 Preparing ritual space
1400-1600 Rituals
1800-1900 Opening of heritage exhibition
1900-2100 Rituals

10 Sep 2016 (Sat)
0900-1145 Rituals
0930-1200 Seminar and discussion on Dabogong
1400-1600 Rituals
1900-2130 Rituals
2000-2100 Crossing the bridge for devotees

11 Sep 2016 (Sun)
0900-1145 Rituals
1000 Lion dance to welcome foreign visitors
1045-1145 Paying of respects by foreign visitors
1100-1400 Mid-autumn event for respecting elders in the community
1400-1600 Rituals
1600-1730 Salvation rituals
1930 Fire dragon performance / Book launch / Exchange of souvenirs with foreign guests


Photographs from the parade of the Fire Dragon in March 2016

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