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Magical road journeys: Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1

2014 November 18

On a bright and sunny morning, the light of the newly risen sun, in streaming through the glorious canopy of trees, transforms a stretch of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 into an enchanted world. The stretch is one along which I have made many a journey, having opened in 1977, when I was living just off it. It is only in more recent times that I have seen it cast in this magical light, best observed in the half an hour or so after the sun has come up.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Say goodbye to the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre

2014 November 12

Built more to be functional than for any aesthetic appeal, the plain looking building along Commonwealth Avenue just across from where the Queenstown MRT Station is, is one that a generation or two of Singaporeans, would have a connection with. The building, wearing what probably is its brightest appearance since it came up, the former Queenstown Driving Test Centre, was built in 1968 as Singapore’s second driving test centre to compliment the one then at Maxwell Road. It was where I took my Highway Code test sometime in the early 1980s.

In passing - the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station. In passing – the soon to be demolished former Queenstown Driving Test Centre as seen through the platform doors of the Queenstown MRT Station.

The introduction of the driving test circuit, the first test of which was conducted in Kampong Ubi in December 1985, spelled the beginning of the end for the test centre. Before it was eventually shut down ten years later, the test centre continued to operate as a location for theory tests. The building was put to use for a while as a police centre and saw other uses before being left vacant to await what will be its eventual demolition.

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For those who are sad to see the centre go, there will be an opportunity to say a last goodbye to it – the former test centre will be opened on 13 December 2014 from 10 am to 2 pm. More information can be found on the My Queenstown Facebook Page.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Back to school in Victoria Street

2014 November 10

Several hundred girls from CHIJ Toa Payoh secondary and primary schools found themselves back in school on Sunday, not in the familiar surroundings of Toa Payoh, but in ones once familiar in Victoria Street. It had been in Victoria Street some 160 years ago, that four nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus’, having arrived following a long and arduous journey from Europe to the Singapore via Penang, began their mission in Caldwell House with just a bed, 2 mats, 2 chairs and 2 stools, establishing the convent in February 1854.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings. Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

The convent was to grow, establishing within the walls of its expanded premises on Victoria Street,  not just an enlarged physical presence that was to be defined by the wonderful examples of architecture built to the glory of the supreme being, but also as a leading institution that provided both care for many in need as well as one that has and continues to play a significant role in providing education to girls in Singapore.

Late for school - 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years. Late for school – 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

While it is sad that the magnificent buildings erected for the nuns to carry out their mission can no longer be used for the purpose – the convent having had to vacate its oasis in the city in 1983 (the schools in the premises moved to Toa Payoh in 1984 and a third school, CHIJ St. Nicholas, to Ang Mo Kio), and even sadder that the complex has been repurposed in a way that trivialises the original intent; it is good to see that there is still a connection that the schools can make with their spiritual home, now called CHIJMES.

Once familiar scenes returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent. Once familiar scenes (except for the mobile devices) returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

The girls, dressed in the familiar blue pinafores, made more than that connection yesterday. Together with their teachers and members of their alumni, a physical connection was also established, with 402 lining up, tallest to the shortest, with hands joined to form what is believed to a world record for the longest human chain (tallest to shortest) – subject to confirmation by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Confirmation  of a Singapore Record. Confirmation of a Singapore Record.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height. Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt. Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Part of the schools’ commemoration of their 160th Anniversaries, the apparent success of the effort dubbed IJ Link, was celebrated in song and dance immediately after. Along with the world record attempt, which surpasses the previously held record of 311, a bazaar, brunch at the former chapel and arts performances were also held on the grounds of the former convent.

The celebration after ... The celebration after …

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel. An assembly held in the field behind the chapel in the good old days (photograph: National Archives of Singapore).

Happy days were here again! Happy days were here again!


More photographs:

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

2014 November 6

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.

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Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.

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The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.

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I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .

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The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.

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Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.

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While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.


Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance. Prayers offered before the performance.

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Preliminaries

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During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in. Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse. Men becoming one with the horse.The performers are obviously in a trance-like state. The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water. Drinking from a bucket of water.

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The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt. The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

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The Barong

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Performers being brought out of the trance

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

Artistic Impressions by Shunji Matsuo

2014 November 3

Renowned for his artistic creations in the hair salon, hairstylist Shunji Matsuo unleashes another dimension in his creative genius in Artistic Impressions, an exhibition running until 13 November 2014, which showcases not only his contribution to hairstyles, but also some 40 paintings and over 20 sculptures and headdresses. The exhibition, curated by Steven Lim, a late bloomer in the field of art – interestingly he was a ship designer before he put himself through art school close to the age of 60, is being held at the Japan Creative Centre in Nassim Road.

A model dressed in Shunji Matsuo's happy colours at the opening of the exhibition on Friday. A model dressed in Shunji Matsuo’s happy colours at the opening of the exhibition on Friday.

I thought that the works, which in most part have a recurring theme centered around women and hairstyles – have also been inspired by contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama and subjects such the Amasan in Japan, are rich in colour (yellow is said to be his happy colour) and have a rather intriguing child-like quality.

A work inspired by Yayoi Kusama. A work inspired by Yayoi Kusama.

Matsuo at the opening. Matsuo at the opening.

The exhibition is well worth a visit not just for Matsuo’s happy expressions of creativity, but also because it gives you an opportunity to step into the gorgeous old world house that the Japan Creative Centre is housed in. More information is available at http://www.sg.emb-japan.go.jp/JCC/invite_shunji%20matsuo.html.

The gorgeous house the Japan Creative Centre is housed in. The gorgeous house the Japan Creative Centre is housed in.

Matsuo's contributions to 50 years of fashion evolution. Matsuo’s contributions to 50 years of fashion evolution.

Curator, Steven Lim. Curator, Steven Lim.

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

One hundred steps to a new heaven?

2014 October 29

It has been a while since I last ventured to the once magical world of Mount Sophia. Perched one hundred feet above the city, scaling its heights was best done on foot via a flight of one hundred steps (and a little more these days), taking you into a world that seemed to me to be the closest thing that there might have been to heaven on earth.

The new world reflecting on a past being erased.. The new world reflecting on a past being erased.

What remains of the former MGS. All that remains of an old school.

Heaven, as it might have been when I made the first of my wanderings through the area in the 1970s, was much changed place by the time I was reacquainted with the hill in more recent times. Much of its magic faded when Eu Villa, a mansion that was the stuff of which fairy tales are made, was demolished at the start of the 1980s. Scarred today by the barbs that have replaced its once wondrous architectural landscape, much of the charm of its days of glory, has never been seen again.

Eu Villa - the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg). Eu Villa – the magical home of Eu Tong Sen (Source: www.singapedia.com.sg).

The triumph of the weapons of past destruction. The triumph of the weapons of past destruction.

A more recent loss was that of the large cluster of buildings that has collectively been referred to as “Old School”, leaving but a few reminders of a yesterday that has largely been forgotten. The complex of buildings was where over six decades of the memories of old girls of Methodist Girls School (MGS), until 1992, had been made. All that remains today is a lone building, abandoned by its companions, but soon to forge new friendships.

Last one standing - Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS. Last one standing – Olson building, abandoned by the other buildings of old MGS.

And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished. And the walls come tumbling down. A retaining wall belonging to the former MGS being demolished.

The lone structure, now sitting forlornly surrounded by a scene of devastation, the Olson building, dates back to 1928 – having been built to facilitate the school’s move up the hill from nearby Short Street that had been attributed to the then principal Mary Olson, after whom the building was named. Destined now to be a clubhouse within the Sophia Hills residential development that will colonise a good part of Mount Sophia, it is one of four reminders of an enchanted past that have been conserved on the hill.

Olson building will become a clubhouse as part of the Sophia Hills development.

The sprawling condominium development, spread not only over the grounds of the former MGS, but will also include the former premises of Nan Hwa Girls’ School at the junction of Adis Road and Sophia Road, and the area next to Old School that was used by Trinity Theological College (TTC), will also include two of the remanining three conserved structures. One is the pre-war building that housed Nan Hwa, which will be put to use as a kindergarten cum childcare centre. The other is the former TTC chapel, which is intended for use as a fine-dining restaurant.

The former Nan Hwa Girls' School. The former Nan Hwa Girls’ School.

The former Nan Hwa will be leased out as a kindergarten cum childcare centre.

The former chapel of TTC - being turned into a fine-dining restaurant. The former chapel of TTC – being turned into a fine-dining restaurant.

The chapel, which has stood out on the hill since the 1960s, is recognisable from its very distinctive roof structure, which takes the form of the Chinese character representing people or人 (ren), when viewed from the front. A fourth conserved structure on the hill that is not part of the development, is the former Tower House, which now houses House on the Hill, a childcare centre.

An artist’s impression of what the fine-dining restaurant will look like.

House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development. House on the Hill across the road from the Sophia Hills development.

With the chill brought by the winds of change sweeping through a once familiar part of Singapore, comes much pain. We have to be numb as there is little room to be sentimental in a Singapore where looking to the future makes us forget the past. There are the small reminders of yesterday we sometimes hold on to. These, however, often lose their meaning in being made into a part of tomorrow.

The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created. The once magical hilltop of Mount Sophia being cleared for new magic to be created.

There is the promise of a new magic. But to feel its enchantment, we have to fall out of love with the Singapore we have grown to love. It is only then that we can fall in love again, with a Singapore where love for anything else but all that now glisters, is hard to find.

The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site. The promised land as seen on a hoarding at the site.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

145 Neil Road

2014 October 27

145 Neil Road, a transitional-style shophouse, stands right next to the house where Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, spent part of his childhood. It was quite recently in the spotlight, not because of any association it may have had with the adjacent dwelling, but as one of two Category B winners of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Architectural Heritage Awards (AHA) this year.

A stairway into a heavenly old world. A new stairway into a heavenly old world.

There is little not to admire about the very tastefully restored house. Owned by Ms Ho Ren Yung, the restoration efforts were the work of architects Ong and Ong Pte Ltd. While it may be the gaudy shade of blue of the house’s exterior – thought to be close to the colour of its original coat of paint (determined through a process that required stripping off each layer of paint added over the years) that first draws attention to the two storey dwelling; it is what’s seen in the inside that is a joy to behold.

The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint. The exterior of 145 Neil Road, wearing what has been determined to have been the colour of its original coat of paint.

A window into the past in the present. A window from the past into the present.

The house’s interior is a wonderful recreation that blends easy on the eye new elements with the reminders of the past. It is where we find a space celebrated even with the separation of the spaces on the ground level through the clever use of features such as the new staircase, the old in the open courtyard, and the kitchen in the extension beyond the courtyard. It is the courtyard where we see the old take centrestage with the retention of its beautiful fish shaped waterspout, carved relief wall panels and wall tiles on the ground level, above which the shuttered windows into the past tells a story of its own.

The joy of space, even with the separation of space. The joy of space, even with the separation of space.

The open courtyard with its fish-spout. The open courtyard with its fish spout, carved relief wall panels and antiquated pigmented wall tiles.

The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard. The wooden shuttered windows overlooking the courtyard.

The kitchen. The kitchen.

Space is also delightfully celebrated on the house’s upper levels. On the second level this is seen especially in the living area. One also finds a very nicely furnished landing area, a study and a bedroom on the floor, beyond which the staircase leads to the attic. There is also a lovely little terrace behind the original roof – a perfect place to escape to that is also accessible through a red-brick wall encased new spiral staircase at the house’s rear. Used as a screen at the top of the staircase are two memories of the past. One is a section of the old iron front gate and the other a shuttered wooden window, a wonderful example of how the house in being transformed for the future, hangs on it what must have been a glorious past. For more information on the house and its restoration, a detailed write up can be found on the URA’s AHA site.

The second level living area. The second level living area.

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A study on the second level. A study on the second level.

The roof terrace.The roof terrace.

A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace. A new spiral staircase to the roof terrace.

The view upwards. The view upwards.

Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows. Reminders of the past: the old iron front gate and shuttered windows.

145 Neil Road in 1982 with its cast iron gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009). 145 Neil Road in 1982 with its old iron front gate (From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009).

The attic. The attic.

Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014. Ms Ho Ren Yung receiving the AHA Award on 2 October 2014.

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

A life-changing slice of toast

2014 October 22

It is going to be hard to look at the humble kaya loti (kaya toast in local speak) in the same way again. Long a breakfast item for the man-on-the-street, it now finds itself elevated into one of two life-changing Singapore experiences for the visitor - thanks to Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015 in which Singapore tops the list of ten countries to visit next year.

An more creative variation on the kaya toast - a kaya toast cocktail. An more creative variation on the kaya toast – a kaya toast cocktail.

To celebrate the Singapore’s elevation to the top of the pile, which in part is due to the fact that Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary of full independence next year,  Singapore Tourism Board (STB) / Lonely Planet decided to bring out the best in kaya – the sweet paste sometimes referred to as “coconut egg jam” made from coconut milk, pandan, sugar and eggs, that can be irresistible on a buttered slice of toast, at a hands-on event at 2am Dessert Bar on Tuesday.

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There is nothing not to love about kaya toast, which in many ways, is representative of what Singapore is as a country – the fusion of many influences and one that continues to evolve. Kaya and kaya toast, besides in the many more traditional variations in which one can find it served today, also provides the inspiration for evolving food and beverage creations -  two of which came to light at yesterdays event.

Variations on what started out as a humble breakfast dish. Variations on what started out as a humble breakfast dish.

The first, is the creation of the much celebrated pastry chef, Janice Wong, the creative energy behind 2am. Reputed to have herself blindfolded so as not to allow what she creates be influenced by what she sees, Janice gave an introduction to “Shades of Green” – a dessert in which flavours many who have grown up in Singapore would quite easily identify with are reinterpreted. The dessert, which I got an opportunity to try assembling, discharging a spray of coco-mousse into two unfortunate participants in the process; features a custard of pandan flavoured palm sugar (gula melaka) is combined with gula melaka ice cream, coco-mousse, pistachio sponge and pistachio crumble, and is topped with a kuih bang kit meringue.

Janice Wong of 2am Dessert Bar. Janice Wong of 2am Dessert Bar.

Shades of Green. Shades of Green.

Shades of Green was quickly followed by more shades of green in the form of a kaya-making demo, after which came what to me was the highlight – putting together a kaya-toast cocktail conceived by cocktail bar Bitters and Love. A combination of rum, lemon juice, sugar, honey, peach liqueur, egg white and a dash of kaya, it does put an interesting twist on the lori kaya.

The ingredients of traditional kaya. The ingredients of traditional kaya.

Putting a new twist both on Singapore and kaya loti, is Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015. Of Singapore, Lonely Planet has this to say: “As one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, Singapore is always celebrating something. But Asia’s smallest state has an extra reason to put on her party hat in 2015 for it’s golden jubilee”. There is indeed much to celebrate in the cultural crossroads that is Singapore. While the city-state’s rapid modernisation, in which it has discarded too much of its fascinating past, has shifted emphasis on the development of mega-attractions and the staging of gala-events; there is that curious mix of age-old traditions and architecture with the ultra-modern that does makes Singapore, where the Lonely Planet says answering the door in one’s underwear is a no-no, a country one just has to visit.

Lonely Planet's Sales and Marketing Director Chris Zeiher at 2am. Lonely Planet’s Sales and Marketing Director Chris Zeiher at 2am.

Along with Singapore, the countries in the top ten for 2015 are Namibia, Lithuania, Nicaragua, Ireland, Republic of Congo, Serbia, The Philippines, St Lucia and Morocco. Lonely Planet draws recommendations for Best in Travel from hundreds of ideas submitted by Lonely Planet’s staff, authors, and extended family of travellers, bloggers and tweeters. The suggestions are refined by a panel of in-house travel experts based on topicality, excitement, value and that special X-factor. More information on Best of Travel can be found at Lonely Planet’s website.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

A dream clinic

2014 October 21

The brand with the three stripes, Adidas, brought some excitement to the tennis courts at Raffles Institution (RI) and also to the grandstand at the MOE Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB), when three of their sponsored WTA superstars, made an appearance on Friday. The three, Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, in Singapore for the WTA Finals, graced the courts to conduct what must have been a dream Adidas tennis clinic for students from the schools from the Raffles family. Simona Halep also made a surprise appearance at the CCAB where tennis players from Methodist Girls School were in training.

Besides taking questions about training regimes, pre-match routines, diet, lucky charms and how they were coping with the Singapore weather, the very glamourous tennis superstars posed some questions of their own – on posing a question on what food she should try whilst in Singapore, the almost unanimous recommendation made at RI to Ana Ivanovic was the durian … I wonder if she would be brave enough to try it ….

Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep at Raffles Institution. Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep at Raffles Institution.

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Soo Kui Jen introducing Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic at RI. Soo Kui Jen introducing Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic at RI.

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RGS tennis players waiting in anticipation. RGS tennis players waiting in anticipation.

Simona Halep. at CCAB Simona Halep. taking questions at CCAB

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Simona Halep taking a wefie with the MGS girls. Simona Halep taking a wefie with the MGS girls.


The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.

The burning boat

2014 October 15

One evening a year, a burning boat lights up the dark and forgotten shores of Kampong Wak Hassan. The fire burns quickly, its flames completely consuming the boat ’s paper shell and its wooden frame in a matter of minutes, sending nine divine beings on a journey to their celestial abodes. The journey brings the beings’ annual nine-day sojourn into the human world to a close and is one that follows a ritual that brings much colour to the shores of Singapore.

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It isn’t only at Kampong Wak Hassan that we see this send-off in Singapore, it is also seen at several waterfront locations across the island. The boat burning act comes at the end of the Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷) or the Nine Emperor Gods festival, a festival that commemorates the visit of the nine stellar gods – the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible). The festival begins with the gods being invited to earth and ends with their journey home on the ninth day.

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The Taoist festival is celebrated with much fervour by the devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, especially so in southern Chinese immigrant communities in several parts of Thailand and Malaysia. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet throughout the festival, which falls on the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, starting on the festival’s eve.  It would once have been common during the festival to observe mediums, many sporting piercings through various parts of the face and on the body, going into a trance. What I especially recall from my younger days was the sight of mediums swords in hand performing acts of self-flagellation, as well as hearing the sounds of cracking whips, all of which over the years seem to have become less common.

A medium sporting a peircing – seen in 1979 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

More information on the festival itself is to be found in a Singapore Infopedia article. The article identifies twelve temples in Singapore at which the festival is observed, one of which is the Tou Mu Kung temple at Upper Serangoon Road. Thought to be the first in Singapore at which the festival was celebrated, the temple’s festival observance culminates these days in a send-off for the gods at Pulau Punggol Timor, a man-made island off the much altered Seletar coastline that is accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.

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The ceremony at Wak Hassan, is that celebrated by the Kew Ong Yah temple, which has its origins in Chong Pang Village - it was originally located just stone’s throw away from the landmark Sultan Theatre. Now housed within the Chong Pang Combined temple in Yishun, the temple also commemorates the occasion with much colour, sending the gods off at the seawall of what was a former village by the sea. It was the temple’s ceremony that I found myself at on the evening of 2nd October, the the ninth day of the ninth month this year.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan. The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

There was already much anticipation in the air when I arrived at 9 pm, more than an hour before the procession was to arrive. A small crowd, made up of many extended families, had already gathered and the chatter included the excited voices of the many children in the crowd. While there was a hint of a sea breeze, it was a sticky evening and many sought relief from the strategically positioned ice-cream vendor and the ice-cream wielding crowd brought an almost festive like atmosphere that is not often seen in the area.

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The anticipation seemed to grow with the passing minutes. A commotion announced the arrival of the two paper boats that were to be used in the ritual. The first, with the head of a dragon, was one that was to be set alight on the beach in which offerings were to be placed. The second, was to carry the gods out to sea and set alight - the flames transporting the gods to the heavens. The presence of the boats, which were moved down to the beach, also provided the signal that arrival of the of the procession of the gods and their paraphernalia was imminent, prompting a frenzy of joss stick lighting among the devotees in the crowd.

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A thunder of drums heralded the arrival of the gods. Representations of the nine gods, masked men dressed in an almost gaudy fashion, circled the roundabout at the end of Sembawang Road in an unsteady dance before the procession moved down to the seawall.  A violently swaying sedan chair brought in the sacred urn. The urn is where the spirits of the gods are carried and the chair is swung from side to side by its bearers as a sign the divine presence. Among those making their way down to the seawall with the procession was Mr K Shanmugam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law and an MP for Nee Soon GRC, who takes part regularly in the Kew Ong Yah temple’s Nine Emperor Gods festival celebrations.

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It was close to midnight when a semi-melodious chant in Hokkien rose above the gentle sounds of the waves of the nearby sea - the chants prayers sung, almost, by a Taoist priest. Once the prayers were completed, it was time for the party of temple officials and the Minister to wet launch the boat carrying the gods, setting it alight in the process, after which attention was turned to the second boat. Fanned by the strengthening sea breeze, the flames seemed in both cases to leap off the burning boat, offering onlookers such as myself, quite a sight to behold. It was past midnight when it was all over, and as quickly as the fire consumed the boats, the crowd dispersed.

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Together with the accompanying ceremony, the fiery end makes the send-off ceremony one of more colourful religious rituals that is seen today in Singapore. The setting for the send-off by the sea provides a connection to who we are and to where we came from; the sea being a naturally where we might, in the past, have sought a connection with the beliefs of our forefathers, many whom arrived here from the coastal communities of Southeast Asia, India and China. Now one of the few religious rituals celebrated by the sea that still is quite visible, the festival serves to connect us with a shore we are very quickly losing sight of. The shore that made us who we were is today a shore that has turned us into who we are not.

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The author also blogs on The Long and Winding Road.



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