A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:

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The last memories of the rural Singapore of old

17 01 2011

I must admit that there was a time when I would have been reluctant to set foot in a kampung (village) in Singapore being very much the urban kid that I was growing up in the new highrise village of Toa Payoh. Back in the early days of Toa Payoh, much of Singapore still lived in the attap and zinc roofed wooden houses set in the densely packed villages all over the rural parts of the island. I had myself, had several experiences of a kampung in my early days, having been made to visit a so-called “sworn-sister” of my maternal grandmother at least once every Chinese New Year when we would spend most of the second day at the chicken farm in Punggol which she and her husband had in their care.

Despite my reluctance to visit kampungs in my early childhood, kampung days were never far away with regular visits to one in Punggol.

The visits to Punggol would inevitably mean that I would have to bear a few hours of boredom, stuck in the confines of what served as the living and dining room of the house with the simple furnishings of a formica topped folding table, a few stools, a food cabinet, two armchairs, and a small coffee table to keep me company. All there was to break the monotony of the room would be the sound of the Rediffusion speaker breaking the relative silence of the room, as I impatiently waited for one of my parents to make an appearance. The great outdoors where my parents would invariably spend the first part of the visits at wasn’t something that I was exactly enamoured with, particularly the fresh country air that would be laced with the smells that came from the rows of chicken coops nearby, a mixture of the smell of chicken feed and chicken droppings, with that of the generous amounts of natural fertiliser that would be used on the numerous plots of vegetables growing around. The fascination that I had with some of the livestock certainly wouldn’t have been enough to presuade me to move from my perch on one of the stools, let alone step across the threshold to join my parents in admiring the ripening array of tropical fruits that awaited their harvest outside.

It certainly has been a long time since I last took in the sights of zinc roofed wooden house in Singapore.

Not all kampungs are made the same of course, and I certainly, as a casual visitor, appreciated some of the coastal villages a lot more than I did the one I regularly visited at Punggol. My earliest encounters with the villages by the seaside would have been at Mata Ikan and Ayer Gemuruh in my very early years, passing through on my hoildays around the Tanah Merah and Mata Ikan area. It only much later in life that I got to wander around some of them in earnest, with one on our northern shoreline just east of the Mata Jetty at the end of Sembawang Road, being one that I would visit often, Kampung Tanjong Irau. The coastal villages were usually more pleasing to the eyes, and it was always nice to encounter the often colourful sight of fishing boats ashore and fishing nets strung up to be mended. This sight would often be accompanied by the whiff of the sea that would be mixed with the smells left on the nets that the catch the nets had held, carried by the gentle breeze from the sea.

The smell of fishing nets was something to look forward to during visits in my childhood to the coastal villages which I seemed to enjoy more.

It was in the latter part of the 1980s that I started to lose touch with the kampungs that I knew, as the busy schedule of my tertiary education and National Service, as well as time spent away from Singapore, took me away from the routines that occupied my childhood. Distracted by what was going on in my life then and the years of my career, the opportunity to say goodbye to the villages of my youth had soon passed me by, as it was during that time that, one by one, the villages that had been very much a part of Singapore’s rural landscape started to disappear as modernisation in Singapore caught up with them. My grandmother’s “sworn-sister” had during that time, been forced to abandon the lifestyle she had known all her life and resettled in Ang Mo Kio, just a stone’s throw from where I lived.

Zinc roofs were once common all over rural Singapore and started to disappear with the wave of urbanisation that swept through rural Singapore in the 1980s.

It was only well into the arrival of the new century that I realised that there had been one village, Kampung Lorong Buangkok, that had somehow resisted the tide of development that had swept through the island and it was in reading a New York Times article “Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up Its Last Village” in early 2009 that I had thought of having a look at what has been touted as the last remaining village on mainland Singapore. Having on many occasions cycled through the area during my teenage years, the village was actually tucked away in an area that was familiar to me, although it was the grounds of the road that led up to the mental hospital, Woodbridge Hospital, named after the main access road to the area, Jalan Woodbridge, that I took more notice of (Jalan Woodbridge has in the intervening years been renamed Gerald Drive in an effort by property developers to avoid any association housing developments in the area could have with the mental hospital (which has since moved to nearby Hougang and renamed as the Institute of Mental Health), but it wasn’t until the National Library Board organised a visit to the kampung recently that I got to have my look around.

The area around Gerald Drive bear very little resemblance to the road that I had once cycled around when it was called Jalan Woodbridge.

An old road sign with the old four digit postal code.

The visit was certainly one that was well worth the while, rather than having to explore the are on my own as besides navigating through the labyrinth that is the village, the guide, Mr Bill Gee, was able to also provide some information on the village as well. The village as it currently stands, sits on a one and a third hectare plot of land (equivalent to the size of three football fields) which is owned by a Ms Sng Mui Hong, a 57 year old resident of the village. Ms Sng had inherited the land from her father who had bought the land when she was three (in 1956), constructing a village which at its height occupied an area roughly twice its current size with 40 households living on it. Today, Ms Sng rents the zinc roofed housing units out to the 28 households that remain, keeping rents at levels that make the rents (by a long way) the cheapest on the island at between S$6.50 to S$30 (excluding electricity and water).

An address plate at a house along Lorong Buangkok where the last village on mainland Singapore stands.

A Chinese home at the entrance to the last village.

Lorong Buangkok as it looks today.

A well photograph sign points the way to the Surau (Muslim Prayer Room).

It certainly felt surreal walking through the kampung, especially in the context of what Singapore has become. The village did appear very much as if time has left it behind, as I weaved my way through the maze of wooden houses, each with a distinct character and colour. The houses were certainly typical of the kampung houses of old, with cemented floors and a grilled gap left between the zinc roofs and the exterior walls of wood to provide ventilation. Wood is used as a structural building material not just because that it is a traditional material, but also as the use of brick and mortar would render the houses too heavy to be supported by the soft muddy ground that lies below due to the area having once been a swamp which was fed by a creek upstream of Sungei Punggol, which my mother had been familiar with in her own childhood, as having lived at the sixth mile area of Upper Serangoon Road not far away, it was where as she would recall, “my father would jump into, not having a care in the world for the possible dangers that the waters held”, stopping the practice only after a mangrove snake had been spotted on one of their forays into the creek. There certainly still is some evidence of what was a brackish water swamp: mud lobster mounds and the red-brown petals of the flowers of the Sea Hibiscus tree are clearly visible on the ground in the area of the village just by what is now a canalised Sungei Punggol. Being built in a low-lying area where a swamp had formed, the village is also one that is prone to flooding, as the evidence – a flood level marker and a signboard providing information on days when there is a risk of flooding at road in from the main road, across from the well photographed sign giving directions to the village’s Surau (a Muslim prayer room), does suggest.

Mud Lobster mounds are clearly visible in the area near the canalised Sungei Punggol, bearing testament to the swamp that existed in the area.

The area is prone to flooding. A PUB signboard is used to inform villagers of days on which flooding is likely to occur.

A flood level marker is seen in the drain close to the PUB signboard.

In the vicinity of the village near where the flood level marker is, is the site of the former SILRA Home (a home for ex-Leprosy patients run by the SIngapore Leprosy Relief Association – hence SILRA) along Lorong Buangkok, of which the entrance remains with a wall on which the faint words “SILRA HOME” can be made out. The home moved to Buangkok View in 2004.

A wall is all that remains of the entrance to the former SILRA Home along Lorong Buangkok.

Many of the Malay and Chinese residents have lived in the village for well over forty years, with many not wanting to move out having been used to the laid back lifestyle and access to open spaces which moving into the modern suburbia would rob them of. It was certainly nice to encounter some of the villagers, who readily smiled at the curious group of visitors that had descended on the village breaking the calm and peace of the village, of whom I am sure they get too many of as interest in the last kampung has increased with all the publicity it has received in recent years. Peaceful the kampung certainly was compared to my first memories of the kampung in Punggol, where the were the sounds of the clucking of hens, the crowing of roosters, the quacking of ducks, the snorting and grunting of pigs and the barking of dogs never seemed to cease. It was in this sea of sounds that one which I would never forget would pierce through each evening – the unmistakable and shirll crescendo that was the chorus of pigs squealing as if they might have been singing for their supper.

The kampung's Surau.

The wooden houses each have a character of their own, painted in the different colours that add a certain charm to the village.

Other sights around Kampung Lorong Buangkok …

Modern times I guess have caught up with the last kampung - I mentioned my parents experience being the first in Kampong Chia Heng to own a TV in a previous post - back then, doors were unlocked and everyone in the village could walk into the living room to have a curious glance at the TV set.

A hinge for a gate ...

Clothes pegs on a laundry line.

A view through a set of bamboo blinds ...

A hibiscus in full bloom.

Ornamental flags flapping in the wind.

A resident on a bicycle.

Malay residents of the kampung.

The star of the kampung - a star made by Jamil Kamsah, a resident of the kampung.

A hurricane lamp ...

and another ...

One of the last places in Singapore to have cables overhead ...

A fallen fruit from a Starfruit tree ...

A Buddha statue.