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.





Fly me to the moon

9 09 2011

I joined the clay artists of the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln for an early Mid Autumn celebration at the kiln. The moon that graced the event wasn’t of course as full as it should really be during a Mid Autumn celebration, but provided an opportunity to see the firefiles that can be found in the wooded area around the kiln.

It wasn't anywhere near a full moon, but that did not stop clay artists at Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln from celebrating the Mid Autumn Festival.

The Mooncake Festival as it is known to us in Singapore, is celebrated by ethnic Chinese communities around the world on the fifteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese calendar. Coming immediately after the seventh or hungry ghosts month, the lead up to it is greeted with excitement and anticipation by many children. As a child, it was during the first two weeks of the month when shopfronts were decorated with the colourful display of cellophane lanterns, bakeries do a roaring trade selling mooncakes, and piglets in attractive baskets are snapped up by children eager to sink their teeth into them.

As a child, I would look forward to seeing shopfronts decorated with colourful displays of cellophane lanterns similar to this one seen in Chinatown in the 1980s.

It wasn't just the bakeries that were doing a roaring trade in mooncakes. Mobile vendors selling mooncakes such as this one seen on Smith Street in the 1980s who is selling mooncakes from a trishaw.

The mooncake festival is often accompanied by pomeloes.

What is wonderful to know is that despite the changing patterns of what children play with over the years, the eagerness with which children look forward to the Mooncake Festival hasn’t diminished. Children are still seen all throughout Singapore not just during the festival, but also in the lead up to it, walking with lanterns that glow in the dark of the night. The lanterns which are still very much a must have for children, were for a period of time in the 1990s, threatened to be taken over by noisy inflatable plastic battery operated lookalikes that somehow takes the joy of carrying a lantern that is illuminated by the flickering light of a candle. The most popular lanterns when I was a child were those that I am glad to see, have made their appearance once again, ones that are made of coloured cellophane paper wrapped tightly over a wire or bamboo frame in shapes of animals and cartoon characters. I remember some of my favourites include a goldfish and one that resembled Ultraman.

The glow of a cellophane lantern in the shape of a chicken.

Paper lanterns which are also popular, are a lot more affordable.

This year’s Mid Autumn festival will be on the 12th of September and the start of the last term of school when exams arrive fast and furious will not deter children all over Singapore from coming out in numbers to bring coloured light on a night when the moon will be at its brightest. It is a sight that I enjoyed as a child, one that I still enjoy seeing today, and one that I hope will continue to be seen for many generations to come.

Lightsticks now add to the colours of the celebration.