Good Friday at a slice of Portugal in Singapore

26 03 2016

The Portuguese Church, as the Church of St. Joseph’s at Victoria Street is referred to, is where the religious traditions of the Portuguese Eurasian community in Singapore are kept alive. It is every year on Good Friday, a day of fasting, reflection and prayer, that we see the most colourful manifestation of these traditions, in an elaborate service which culminates in procession illuminated by the light of candles carried by the sea of worshippers that crowd the church’s compound.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday.

The sea of candlelight every Good Friday at the Portuguese Church.

The procession, would in the past, attract worshippers in their thousands, some of whom would crowd the compound just to see the procession pass. Worshippers would also spill out to Queen Street and in more recent times to the lower floors of the podium at Waterloo Centre. It was at Queen Street where many candle vendors would be seen to do a roaring trade, offering candles of all sizes. I remember seeing some on sale that were of such a length that they needed to be propped up by pieces of wood, which we no longer see these days.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

The head of the procession with a bier containing a life-sized representation of the body of Christ makes its way through the grounds of the church.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

Worshippers carrying candles follow the procession.

While the candle vendors have been chased off the streets, the procession, even with the smaller crowds we see today, still adds much life and colour to the area. In keeping the traditions of a small and rarely mentioned community in Singapore alive, the procession also reminds us that what colours Singapore is not just the influences of the main ethnic groups but also of the smaller groups that have added to the flavour of Singapore’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

Another view of the procession through the grounds.

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A face seen in the clouds as the crowds gathered for the procession.

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More on the procession and the Portuguese Church:

 





The full moon of Panguni

23 03 2016

The full moon of the Tamil month of Panguni paints the Sembawang area with the colours of a Hindu festival, Panguni Uthiram, celebrated by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. The celebration of the festival, which involves a street procession of kavadis, is a tradition that dates back to 1967 during the days of the British Naval Base.

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The temple back then was off Canberra Road within the base and the procession took a route from the laundry shop at the junction of Canberra and Ottawa Roads, down Canberra Road, left into Dehli Road and into Kowloon Road, before continuing back up Canberra Road, ending at the temple.

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The procession this year, as with the one last year, took a shortened route from Canberra Drive, down Canberra Lane to Canberra Link and to Yishun Industrial Park A. Now surrounded by the obvious signs of urbanisation and change, the procession now has a very different feel to it than it did in the good old days.JeromeLim-8636

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More information on the celebration, as well as some photographs of the celebration of the festival at its original site, can be found at the following links on the temple’s website:

Posts and photographs from the celebrations of the previous years’ that I managed to catch can be found at the following links:

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More photographs from Panguni Uthiram 2016

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The end point was at the temporary temple as the temple building is being rebuilt and will only be ready later this year.

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The eighth night

1 03 2016

Chinese New Year, celebrated over a fifteen day period that culminates with Chap Goh Mei or Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节), is an occasion for much joy and feasting for the Chinese community here in Singapore. It is also an occasion when the many sub-cultural practices brought in by the diverse group of early Chinese immigrants are brought to the surface. One such observation is that of the Heavenly Jade Emperor’s birthday. Commemorated on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated by members of the Hokkien community.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore's oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

For the community, who were among the earliest group of immigrants to come ashore in British Singapore, the observation is of great importance. Referred to as Pai Tee Kong in Hokkien (or Bai Tian Gong, 拜天公 in Mandarin), it is sometimes also called the “Hokkien New Year”.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

As to how the community came to regard the birthday as the most important of the fifteen days, there are several versions of the story (one of which is found here). The many variations do have one thing in common – that members of the community were able to elude would be attackers by taking refuge in a field of sugarcane and praying to the Jade Emperor for deliverance.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day. Legend has it that a field of sugarcane offered Hokkiens fleeing from attackers a place of refuge.

Where the story differs is in when it took place and who the Hokkiens were running from, ranging from the incident taking place during the time of the Song or Mongol dynasties with Hokkien (or Fujian) province under attack by the armies loyal to the ruling dynasty, to it taking place during the days of the Ming Dynasty and the Hokkiens being pursued by bandits or pirates. Whatever it was, it was on the ninth day – coincidentally the birthday of the Heavenly Jade Emperor – Taoism’s most supreme deity, that the Hokkiens were able to emerge from their hiding place and celebrate the new year.

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Preparations to greet the Heavenly Jade Emperor begin in earnest on the eve of the ninth day. Stalks of sugarcane are purchased by Hokkien families who place them by the doors of their homes or on either side of a table of offerings. The offerings include items such as pineapples, sweets, roast pigs and huat kueh (steamed “prosperity cakes” often used as prayer offerings), all of which also have a special significance.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

Temples are probably where the celebrations are at their most colourful. At the Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple and the spiritual home of Hokkien culture in Singapore along Telok Ayer Street, a temporary altar to the Jade Emperor is erected to which prayers and offerings made. It is however just next door at the former home of a Hokkien Peranakan mutual-aid society, the Keng Teck Whay, that one of the more elaborate ceremonies is held.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The beautifully crafted 19th century Keng Teck Whay, long in a state of disrepair, has only very recently been restored by the Singapore Taoist Mission. The mission now runs the National Monument as the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and maintains many of the practices of the Keng Teck Whay. Dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the temple’s Pai Tee Kong, all of which was conducted in the Hokkien vernacular, is especially elaborate and a wonderful reminder that Singapore, in all its modernity, is still where many traditions have not lost their place.

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay ...

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay …

Which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.

… which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance for the Thain Hock Keng across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held at temples to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.





Chinese New Year at Eng Hoon Street

9 02 2016

The best lion dance, dragon dance and giant flag performance on the streets of Singapore during the Chinese New Year takes place every year on the morning of the second day in front of Bao Sheng Trading at Eng Hoon Street. Photographs from this year’s performance follow:

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Spring is in the air

9 02 2016

Every eve of the Lunar New Year, we are reminded of the old Chinatown when the now sanitised streets and the annual festive bazaar that comes up in the lead up to the New Year, comes alive. Chinatown is at its most atmospheric then as crowds throng its streets in search of festive goods being disposed off at a bargain – much like it was in the days of old. The eve also sees Taoist temples getting ready for the crowds – it is customary for Chinese of the Taoist faith to visit the temple in the early hours of the New Year to offer respects to the deities. One temple that gets busy is the oldest Hokkien temple, the Thian Hock Keng, where festivities this year were accompanied by Hokkien marionette puppet shows and stilt walkers – part of a series of events for the Lunar New Year that will also see a getai held on 15 February. The temple is also holding a series of guided tours during the period, more information on which can be found at http://www.thianhockkeng.com.sg/events_2016_cny.html.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

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Monkeys were everywhere.

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The Sri Mariamman hindu temple.

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Stilt walkers outside the Thian Hock Keng.

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The Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

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The puppet show stage at the Thian Hock Keng.

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Calligraphy.

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A puppeteer in action.





Wayang days

7 10 2015

Seeing a stage set up for a wayang, as street theatre has come to known in Singapore, is always a cause for celebration. Wayangs not only add much colour that is otherwise lacking on the street of the modern reinterpretation of Singapore, they also take me back to the happiest days of my childhood and ones spent in a Singapore that now seems a far away place.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

The Chinese street opera, in its various genres would be the most common form of street threatre. Many of the troupes that started out as far back as in the mid 1800s would have had their origins in southern China. One pioneering troupe still around from those times is the Lao Sai Tao Yuan (老赛桃源), or Lau Sai Thor Guan in Teochew (Chaozhou), who arrived in the early 1850s. The troupe, which was already in existence some five decades prior to the move down the southern ocean, continued performing in Singapore during the occupation and would possibly be the oldest Chinese opera troupe still performing here in Singapore.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

Wayang days today, sans what used to be the usual accompaniment of the aroma of steaming groundnuts and cobs of corn and the food laden pushcarts that were as much a crowd puller as the entertainment the wayangs provided, see much less of a crowd. There is also much less of an atmosphere as compared to the days in which wayang days were occasions everyone seemed to look forward to. The embrace of the modern world, and perhaps the abandonment of the vernacular, has resulted in a decline in interest in it as a form of entertainment. No longer a fashionable choice in today’s less unassuming climate, the troupes left today such as the Lao Sai Tao Yuan, survive only out of the passion and the determination of their members to keep a tradition that we in Singapore no longer have a need for, alive.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan's recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan’s recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The Lao Sai Tao Yuan troupe, whose members are all quite friendly, performs quite regularly. Their performances and back stage preparations are a joy to observe. Their next performances will take place on at 12 noon and 7 pm on 9 and 10 October 2015 at the Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂) at Lorong 2 and on 11 and 12 October 2015 at the Paya Lebar Nine Emperor Gods temple (Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng or 葱茅园九皇宫) at Arumugam Road.


Backstage with the Lao Sai Tao Yuan

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The final act

29 09 2015

Except perhaps for the haze and the heavy downpour, the scene at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road last evening would have been one typical of any of the temple’s festival evenings with a stage erected to provide entertainment for the evening’s heavenly guest. It was however the last time the evening’s performers, the Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰) puppet troupe, will be seen on stage. One of only two Teochew rod puppet troupes in Singapore, the Sin Sai Poh Hong has now gone into retirement having played out their final act at last evening’s birthday celebrations for the Monkey King (or Monkey God).

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong's art.

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong’s art.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

Acts such as these put on by street opera and puppet troupes, while intended for the deities, served also to provide entertainment for the masses. They were a means by which cultural and social values were transmitted from one generation to the next in the days of low literacy levels and before television invaded our living rooms.

Last words ....

Last words ….

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Teochew rod puppetry, which has very elaborately made puppets skillfully manipulated by iron rods, are a more recent introduction (early 20th century) to the street theatre scene in Singapore. The tradition is however thought to go back several centuries in southern China. Sadly, it along with other genres of street theatre once common in Singapore, seem now to have little place in a Singapore that wants to know little of its past and it may only be a matter of time, before the last curtain falls on a form of entertainment that once brought entire communities out onto the streets.

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