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:


 

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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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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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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/.

 

 





Behind the stage door

27 09 2015

The stage door or hu du men (虎度门) of a Chinese opera stage is what divides the real from the imaginary. It is the line across which the actor leaves his or her real self and becomes the stage character the audience sees. This was one of several interesting facts of what does go on behind the scenes on a Chinese opera, or wayang as we refer to it here in Singapore that I learnt on a back stage tour organised by the Esplanade that I attended last evening. The tour, which was hosted by media personality Nick Shen, is part of this year’s celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), Moonfest, being held this weekend at the Esplanade.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

The eleventh edition of the celebration at the Esplanade, sees the venue bringing back the street opera scene with a performances by a Hainanese, a Hokkien and a Teochew opera troupe on each of the three nights of Moonfest this weekend. Wayang in the various genres once commonly found in Singapore, would in the days before lives were complicated by modernity, attract the crowds. Often held to coincide with temple festivities, the wayangs would move from village to village and bring with them an entourage of food stalls with wayangs held either on stages erected for the period or on existing free standing stages. The stage in those days would not just be where the performances were held, but also would have been where life, for the actors and their families, would often be lived.

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门).

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门). Stepping beyond the stage door, the opera actor leaves his or her own personality behind becomes fully immersed in the character.

The troupe's deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The troupe’s deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The area back stage is always a fascinating place, not least because one is able to observe the lengthly preparations that take place before the actor is able to assume his or her role beyond the hu du men. Hearing about some of what goes on from Nick Shen, whose many talents include Chinese opera acting, made it all the more interesting. Besides introducing the concept of the hu du men and to stage superstitions such as that it was considered bad luck to kick one of the many chests (used to store make-up, props, etc. back stage,  Nick, also provided an insight into life back stage. This was just before last evening’s show by a one year old Hokkien opera troupe, Xiao Dong Tian (小洞天), so participants could also observe some of the preparations for the performance.

Backdrops are an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

Backdrops – an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

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The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

Interestingly, the troupe is a phoenix that has risen out of the ashes of an old phoenix, having been formed by some members of a century old troupe, the Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤), which was disbanded just last year (see: Last rites for the Singaporean soul) – the Hong (凤) refers to a phoenix and it is encouraging to know that the tradition is not completely being lost to the new world as well as that it there are perhaps a few from the younger generation interested in taking up the art.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor's beard is sometimes moved on stage.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor’s beard is sometimes moved on stage.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

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Traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments.





The glow in the park

16 09 2013

The Mid-Autumn festival is one which always provides a burst of colour to light the evening up. The glow from a burst of colour which is definitely worth being bathed in is the sea of lights found at one of Singapore’s latest and most popular attractions, the Gardens by the Bay which plays host to a magical display of light and colour in the form of hand-crafted lanterns from 13 to 22 September at Mid-Autumn Festival @ The Gardens 2013.

Being bathed by the glow in the park.

Being bathed by the glow in the park.

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The display in the outdoor gardens and The Meadow is free and is arranged around several themes which include Jurassic Park, the World of Fairy Tales and zodiac signs. During Mid-Autumn Festival @ The Gardens 2013, which is organised by Chinese Newspapers Division of Singapore Press Holdings, People’s Association and Gardens by the Bay also sees various fringe activities such as stage performances, competitions and exhibitions.

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There is food glorious food to also look out for at Asian Food Street at The Meadow with delicacies from China, Taiwan and Singapore on offer, including those brought in by the China Hainan Provincial Committee. The committee will be at the event to showcase the Hainan region’s specialties which also include dance and music performances and the sale of handicrafts. The performances can be caught from 6 to 11 pm on Monday to Friday; and 3 to 11 pm on Saturday and Sunday during the event period. There will also be fundraising activities held, the proceeds of which will go to President’s Challenge 2013. The fund raising activities include the release of water and sky lanterns and a one-day Family Fun Walk.

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Release of water 'Loi Krathong' lanterns.

Release of water ‘Loi Krathong’ lanterns.

Another highlight to look forward to is the new Mid-Autumn themed floral display in the Flower Dome. This see three dragonfly lanterns perched over a field coloured by “lantern flowers” such as Begonias and autumn-blooms like Chrysanthemums, Astilbes and Celosias.

A dragonfly lantern in the Flower Field of the Flower Dome.

A dragonfly lantern in the Flower Field of the Flower Dome.

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For Mid-Autumn Festival @ The Gardens 2013 there will be an extension of operating hours as well as a 15% discount on admission tickets to the conservatories. The discounts are applicable on the prevailing Standard and Local Resident admission rates only and applies only to tickets purchased at on-site Ticketing Counters. Discounts are limited to 4 tickets purchased during each transaction and does not include OCBC Skyway and Garden Cruiser. The extension of opening hours applies to the two conservatories and OCBC Skyway which will be opened from 9 am to 11 pm (last ticket sale 10 pm / last admission 10.30pm) from 13 to 22 September with the operating hours for selected F&B outlets in the Gardens also extended.

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A Snap & Win! Instagram photo contest will be held in conjunction with the event with 3 winners walking away with Gardens by the Bay memorabilia gift packages worth $50. To participate, visitors can upload photos of the Mid-Autumn celebrations at Gardens by the Bay on their Instagram account with the hashtags #midautumnatgb and #gardensbythebay.

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For me, one of the highlights is an installation put up by Keppel Club at the Supertree Grove – the 3D Pandora Exhibitions which requires 3D glasses to be worn. This is opened from 6 to 11 pm on Monday to Friday and 3 to 11 pm on Saturday and Sunday and involves props made out of recycled materials. More information on this and the whole big glow in the park can be found at the Gardens by the Bay’s website.

Look Ma, I have three toes!

Look Ma, I have three toes!

Through the #D Pandora Exhibition.

Through the 3D Pandora Exhibition.

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The other side of the moon

15 09 2012

In a fast changing world in which there often are just little reminders of the past to cling on to, it is always good to come across old world traditions that have not been displaced by the new. One area in which we are able to see this is in the making of mooncakes by some of the established mooncake bakeries, one of which is Chop Tai Chong Kok. I was able to visit the bakery very recently just as the making of mooncakes was being ramped-up as the Chinese eight month, in which the Mooncake or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated, approaches.

Mooncakes are still made in the traditional way at Chop Tai Chong Kok.

Having been in the business for some 77 years, the shop has long been one of the popular brands in traditional Cantonese style mooncakes, attracting long queues for the sweet delectable treats it produces in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn festival. It now produces the mooncakes it is well-known for, as well as other Cantonese style pastries and confectionery, in a shop lot in Ubi Avenue 1, having had to move its business in 34 Sago Street when Chinatown was being cleaned-up during the conservation efforts which have given us the sanitised version of Chinatown we see today. The shop has since opened a retail outlet back in the shophouse in which the business started – one that is now rented.

Long queues seen at the original shop at Sago Street in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival (photo taken off one displayed on the wall of the shop).

Having had to move out of their Sago Street premises during the remaking of Chinatown, the business now rents the same unit and operates a retail outlet there.

Although now made in newer premises, little has changed in the production of Chop Tai Chong Kok mooncakes since the days of the late Mr Tham Kah Chee who arrived from China in 1935 and started his business at Sago Street. The preparation of the dough as well as the lotus and bean paste fillings to the pressing of dough wrapped balls of paste into the round shaped mooncakes in wooden moulds that the late Mr Tham himself would have used is still very much done by hand. I was able to observe part of this process which involved five persons standing around a wooden topped table, very quickly transforming flat pieces of dough and pre-prepared balls of paste into unbaked paler versions of the famous mooncakes. The sounds of wooden moulds on the wooden table top took me back to the days of my youth when I would wander around the old streets of Chinatown to catch a glimpse of shop fronts brightly coloured by cellophane lanterns and for a chance to watch unbaked mooncakes being made on tables lined along the five-foot ways as the Mid-Autumn Festival approached.

Little has changed in the preparation of ingredients and in the way the mooncakes are made even with the mooncake maker operating in newer premises. The mooncakes are still considered to be the best among the best of traditional Cantonese mooncakes in Singapore.

The business is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the late Mr Tham’s family, with a grandson, Weng Seng, now involved in the running of business. Facing many challenges including he arrival of many new players in the market, the introduction of newer variations of the traditional pastry, changing tastes, the small local market, as well as in employing people willing to labour in the bakery, their mooncakes continue to remain popular with Singaporeans due to their commitment to tradition and quality. Being one of a few organic businesses that has reclaimed a place in a Chinatown where many other businesses have found it hard to return to, the desire of the new generation taking over to maintain the relevance of the business in the face of new challenges does spell hope that they will, for some time to come, continue to serve as a reminder of a world that would otherwise have long been forgotten.

The business in now in the hands of the Mr Tham Kah Chee’s children and the next generation. His son Mr Tham Wing Thong seen here is still very much involved in making the pastries.

Fillings (lotus paste with egg yolk seen here) prepared by hand are rolled into a ball and placed on trays ready to be wrapped in a skin of dough.

Trays of fillings for the morning’s mooncake making.

A flat round piece of dough is rolled and used to wrap the pre-prepared fillings. Lotus Paste, Red Bean Paste and Green Bean Paste with lotus seeds are traditional fillings used.

Covering up the filling …

A ball of dough wrapped around the filling ready to be pressed into a mould.

Pressing a dough into a wooden mould – the moulds used are those handed down by the late Mr Tham Kah Chee.

A fully pressed mooncake in the mould.

Knocking out the mooncake from the mould.

Voilà!

The mooncake is then placed in a baking tray destined for the oven.

Trays of unbaked mooncakes.

A close-up.

Mid-way through, the baking mooncakes are taken out to be glazed using egg-yolk.

Glazing the mooncakes.

A tray of freshly baked mooncakes just out of the oven.

Once out of the oven, the freshly baked mooncakes are transferred to wooden paper lined trays to cool down.

And given a light brush over.

Customers can opt to have their mooncakes wrapped in a traditional way.

Traditionally packed mooncakes.

And take them home in traditional brown paper bags – we used to call these chicken paper bags as such bags came in handy in bringing live chickens home.

A stack of paper bags … customers can also opt to have the mooncakes packed in square boxes and brought home in plastic bags or corporate gift paper bags.

A favourite with the kids … ‘piglets’ in baskets …

Similar methods are employed in the making of piglets.

Other traditional pastries are also on sale at the retail outlet.

Almond cookies.

Mooncakes on sale at the Sago Street retail outlet.