Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Istana - from nutmeg plantation to Presidential Palace

Queen Victoria,  relegated from the State Room to the gardens in 1959. Not a bad move, actually - I know at least where I would rather be...
Again, I've been too busy write anything down here... But now that I do, at least it is garden-related. The Chinese Lunar New Year started on February 1st, and the Istana was open from early morning until evening. It opens only four or five times a year, so luckily we were there shortly after 8 AM, as when leaving the grounds, the queue trailed well over half a kilometer around the huge block. Combined with a heat of 36 degrees C, visiting after 10 AM that day must really have been for the truly committed ones.
The Istana itself - difficult to photograph as it is surrounded by lush greenery; one would need some kind of a crane to get high enough...

Fountains on a lower terrace in front of the Istana; a huge Tembusu tree from the original times grew in the same spot until quite recently.
Istana means 'palace' in Malay, which describes well the handsome building housed in the over 100 acre gardens in the middle of the busiest business district of Singapore - just stepping in to the specious greenery from the never-sleeping Orchard Road feels positively unreal. It was initially built by the British Colonial Government as a residence for its governors in 1869, and handed over to the Singaporean Government in 1959, when the country gained self-government (that's a lot of government and governors in one single sentence...). While the president of Singapore has never lived there, the building serves frequently for ceremonial and entertainment purposes, and also houses the offices of the President and his staff; what a magnificent place to go to work.
 Tropical splendor from around the Queen Victoria pond - ginger lilies and hibiscus, a bit of a challenge to catch in the glaring morning sun. 
And whites from the large shrub borders around the palace - must check what these are, my knowledge of the local flora is still far too limited...
The rolling grounds used to be a nutmeg plantation when construction works were started in 1867. The plans were drawn by Colonial Engineer, Major John F.A. McNair, who decided on a neo-Palladian style look similar to many other 18th century buildings designed by British military engineers throughout India. The layout of the building is adapted to the tropical climate and takes influences from Malay houses with columns, deep verandas, louvred windows and  paneled doors, which all promote cross-ventilation and cool down the interiors. The grounds contain a 9-hole golf course, "themed gardens" and several smaller bungalows (any of which I happily volunteer to rent in case there are any openings...). A bit too stiff to my taste (understandably, but still...), a nevertheless magnificent garden residence for a President of a tiny country like Singapore - and if I would be him, I would move in in a flash!
The large rolling hills, with the central business district behind - the whole place feels like a dream from the past (at least to us visitors, without any concerns about the state matters).
The Istana at Orchard Road, open at Lunar New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Pusa, Labour Day and National Day - arrive early to beat the huge crowds, and the heat.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thaipusam - a pierced procession for Murugan

Yesterday, I followed the annual Thaipusam procession in Singapore for the first time. This colorful religious tradition - that feels like an anachronism in today's modern Singapore - originates from the Chettiars, South Indian Tamil immigrants that arrived in Singapore in early 19th century; the same group initiated the similar but more famous Thaipusam tradition held at the Batu caves in Malaysia.
When celebrating Thaipusam, devotees demonstrate their faith to Lord Murugan, son of Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati, by carrying kavadis (literally "burdens") through a 4.5 km long processional route on busy Singaporean streets. Kavadis range from simple wooden constructions and limes or milk pots hanging from hooks to elaborate spear ("vel") kavadis consisting of up to 108 long spikes pierced directly onto the carriers' bodies. In addition, devotees have skewers pierced through their tongue and cheeks, and holy ash applied to their bodies. Not for the fainthearted, truly.

'Why?' was my first reaction to the procession. And then: 'what could possibly be gained by torturing oneself in this way?' So I had to look for answer from those with more insight, and found following notes: by carrying a kavadi, "the devotee becomes a carrier or a vehicle himself and the act of lifting the kavadi is almost akin to assimilating spirit of the divinity within one's self. Many devotees associate this act as a humbling experience and believe that the vel dispels of ignorance and ego. Some of them feel they are recharging themselves, or purifying themselves as well as praying for the well being of their family and friends". And even if some people I know refuse attending Thaipusam calling it primitive and barbaric, the devotion of the kavadi bearers seemed so strong that I felt honored by them letting me photograph their labors of faith.

The piercings are said to inflict no pain as well as leave no scars (no blood is spilled during the process, which is well documented by many onlookers and photographers). Before Thaipusam, devotees go through a 48 day spiritual cleansing, which also involves a strict regime of fasting, abstinence and prayer.
Another devotee had hooked limes to his back and on the skewers leading through his cheeks...

Whole extended families participate and support their own kavadi carriers through the processional route through Singaporean streets.

 Even women participate, carrying milk pots symbolizing blood offered to Murugan.
A tired-looking young kavadi carrier - he didn't have any fat to cushion between the long spikes and his muscles, unlike some older devotees...
The piercing of the tongue and the cheeks are a symbolic (and actual) renunciation of the gift of speech and language in order to enable the devotee might concentrate more fully upon Lord Murugan.
 No age limits here - even the tiniest family members are obviously not too young to participate - in prams, or carried on shoulders.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Early morning at Thian Hock Keng Temple

A breakfast for those on the other side... despite the early hour, someone had already left a bag of food, some coffee and incense in front of a shrine with ancestral tablets that are bought to commemorate dead family members. 

Calm before the storm... All temples related to Chinese religions here in Singapore are busy preparing for the Lunar New Year in the end of January. Thian Hock Keng temple is no exception. There will be over two weeks of praying, diverse rituals and ceremonies to welcome the Year of the Horse, and to secure all possible blessings, from health and wealth to fertility and other prosperity. I took these pictures on an early morning visit and they are deceptively serene, so much is happening behind the scenes for the moment...
Cultural diversity is what I love most about Singapore - just scratch the surface, and something interesting pops up behind every corner, easily accessible for all to learn from and to enjoy.

The story of Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street started in the 1820's, the early days of Singapore, as a humble joss house (a place to prayer and offerings) dedicated to Ma Zu Po, the Goddess of Sea and protector of sojourners. Many Chinese immigrants arrived with boats from Fujian (Hokkien), and went directly to the temple to offer thanks to Ma Zu for their safe journeys. Built in Southern Chinese architectural style, no nails were used when constructing it - and when renovated in the early 2000's, same methods were strictly followed. Thian Hock Keng is still one of the most popular temples in Singapore.   

The handsome entrance to the temple, with a pair of Foo lions and elaborately carved roof with countless Buddhist deities. The tessellated tiles and the cast iron fence are typical Colonial features - the cast iron was imported from Britain. It functioned as ballast in the trading ships that unloaded it here and filled their bellies with oriental trading goods from silk to spices in the Singaporean harbor. We had a veranda with very similar tiles in our Victorian house in Melbourne (it was built in 1890) - the old colonies share so much in so many ways...

A closer look at the entrance doors, with golden dragons and probably a depiction of one of the Eight Immortals, a group of beings that possess supernatural powers who can heal the sick, predict the future and transform themselves into other beings or even animals.

 More tiles and beautiful woodwork - no nails used! - in the inner courtyard of the temple.
 The main altar for Ma Zu is to the right - photography strictly not allowed there.

 View towards the main altar, with a large bronze incense burner in the middle; it is covered with lucky symbols like bats (bats are called "fu" in Chinese which sounds like "luck").

 Early morning maintenance work... beautiful old Singaporean shophouses behind the temple walls.

 A lovely, simple side entrance to the main altar. And more tiles, which were very much loved as decoration on temples and houses - and even tombs - by the Singaporean Chinese.

 An altar for Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, with the Moon Goddess and Sun God on each side. Guanyin means "Observer of Sound", so she hears the cries of all living beings, helps those in need and delivers salvation. Together with Ma Zu, she is one of the most revered goddesses here, and belongs to both Buddhist and Daoist pantheons.

Guanyin also helps infertile women to conceive - here, small dolls and even nappies had been left to her helper, the Moon Goddess.

 The Chinese are so beautifully inclusive in their religious lives; there's no need to select one, just choose whatever suits you from the Buddhist, Daoist and even Confucian religions and philosophies - a thinking that would be great if it would be adopted in some other parts of the world... Here, Confucius (Kong Zi), Chinese philosopher who lived about 2500 years ago, whose teachings still influence the daily lives of the Chinese today.

 Confucius taught the importance of wisdom, common education, cultivation of noble human character and development of one’s thinking - here, red banners are hung under the roof by his altar, expressing wishes for success in upcoming exams.

Bats everywhere - from roof tiles to bronze vessels to stone carvings, these little good luck symbols can be found throughout the temple. Here, people have rubbed the bat for an extra touch of luck so many times that it has turned black and almost shiny.
Yet another elaborately carved and painted side entrance. Sometimes people complain about Singapore being too orderly and clean, but I have to admit that I enjoy seeing these cultural treasures without graffiti tags or other doodles...and knowing they will be quite safe from them even in future.
A new pictorial tour coming up next week - the festival of Thaipusam will be celebrated on Friday by the Hindu community in Singapore, just in right time for my current South Asia studies!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bukit Brown - erasing Singapore's heritage, grave by grave

Bukit Brown has been on me Singaporean to-do list every since I saw some enchanting pictures of its jungle-covered hills with ornate grave stones for almost a year ago. Somehow, I didn't manage to get there until today, despite a couple of unfortunate attempts, one of which ended up all the way at Woodlands on the other side of the island thanks to the less than adequate GPS in our tiny car. But then, Singapore is a small island.

The Jade Maiden - the Golden Boy and Jade Maiden are often found standing on either side of a grave. They serve as guides in the Underworld and guide the soul of the deceased to the Western paradise.
For a reason unknown even to myself, I have a huge love for old cemeteries. Not are they only soothingly quiet with verdant greenery spilling over their intended spaces and places. Walking among the lichen-clad grave stones and memorials remind of how this all will pass - and how there is nothing we can do about it, but to fulfill our role as yet another link in a long chain.

After a simple walk through the winding paths of Bukit Brown this morning, I would like to declare that I have found one of my favorite places in Singapore. Over 200 acres of amazingly lush jungle covering the heart of this tiny island filled with thousands and yet thousands of graves, from the magnificently elaborate to the tiny stones of the paupers, all in different degrees of dilapidation. A real treasure trove for anyone interested in Chinese culture and arts, all carved on the stones and monuments dedicated to the dead.
 Another little Foo Lion, ready to scare off evil spirits so that they won't disturb the deceased... very typical for Chinese tombs.
Now, being a tiny island, space is a scarce resource in Singapore, and like many other remaining open spaces, Bukit Brown has been earmarked for residential development in about 30 years time. And already now, a part of it - as the developers say "only" 5% of the graves, have been marked for exhuming, from the way of a new 8-lane highway that will cut through the cemetery in the near future. I was upset about this even before, but after seeing the place, I cannot understand how it has been possible for Singapore's decision makers to take this step. There has been a huge grassroots' movement, thousands of signatures have been collected in order to stop the plans, but with no avail. Even my 11-year old daughter got almost tears in her eyes, wondering how anyone could disturb the dead so, after seeing a small child's grave with a white marker on it telling about its dull destiny.
Graves marked with white slats for exhuming. Not even the ever so vigilant foo lions can save them from destruction.
As I said already, Bukit Brown in a  pearl that should be left as it is for the Singaporean public and in the tending hands of loving historians and amateurs. These lush hills, covered by the silent graves and luxurious greenery, are something that cannot be replicated. There is simply nothing that modern Singapore can build that could come even close in terms of historical, cultural and even recreational values. For us "westerners", Cimetière du Père-Lachaise has more famous people buried, but in terms of charm, Bukit Brown plays at least in the same league (I actually find its wild beauty much more attractive). Once it is gone, it is gone forever - and if the spirits come up from their disturbed graves, I know whom they should go and haunt...

Many grave stones have pictures of the deceased, and incense and offerings are left on the tombs to please the ancestors and make their life in the spirit world easier. If they are happy at the other side, they might even bless their descendants in this world and make them more successful...

About Bukit Brown:
Bukit Brown was named after George Henry Brown, a ship-owner and trader who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s. The 211-acre site was bought in 1870s by three wealthy Hokkien entrepreneurs, Ong Kew Ho, Ong Ewe Hai and Ong Chong Chew, who all came from the same village in Xiamen in China. They had intended the area as a self-sufficient village for the poorer members of the Ong clan, but in the end, it was only used as burial ground. Some of the graves are even older; a grave stone belonging to Fang Shan from 1833 was found on the grounds in 2011. After the government bought the land in1918, Bukit Brown was opened to serve the wider Chinese community as burial grounds in 1922.

When Bukit Brown was closed for burials in 1973, it contained about 100 000 graves, making it the largest Chinese cemetery outside China.

Many of the tombs are built in the rounded form of an armchair, the ideal form for a grave for many Chinese, as it gives a sense of wealth, comfort and dignity. In the olden days, only the elite class could afford armchairs, so they symbolize authority and power. By erecting a grave in the armchair shape, the Chinese believed that their ancestors could enjoy comfort, dignity and pride in the spirit world.
Learn more and support Bukit Brown
Bukit Brown Cemetery - Our Roots, Our Future:
SOS Bukit Brown - do something!
Bukit Brown, a place with rich heritage and biodiversity:
The Long and Winding Road (beautiful photos):

An update - see a little glimpse of Bukit Brown live: check out a video called "Voices from Bukit Brown" - an independent film team made a whole documentary, I'm checking how to get it online or on DVD:

My favorite grave guardian - but whom would this cute little creature that looks like a wombat have scared off?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Decoding pumpkins, butterflies and Buddha's hand lemons

What a timing - look what I found yesterday at one of my favorites "junk" haunts in Singapore, just before I'm having a lecture of symbolism in Chinese art tomorrow on my course at the museum...
Even more coincidentally, the lecture will be given by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, whose treasure trove of a book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery" I've often used during the last year to decode my surroundings here in Singapore, from artifacts and imagery in Buddhist temples to decorative motifs on furniture and paintings to porcelain.
Covered with dust, worm spilling and spider webs, I found this little wood carving on the bottom of a cardboard box under many similar ones, though none of them was as lively and skillfully carved. Made of dark wood, it is painted with red, with gilded details that are now almost worn out. Originally, it probably was a part of a cabinet, window shutter, or even door in a Chinese home, that has now probably been demolished and replaced by something more modern.
Dusting off the surface to reveal the carved fruits, a fluttering butterfly and an musical instrument between, I suspected that there would be some "higher meaning" that I wasn't able to understand, but felt excited to decipher as soon as I got home to my books. And my intuition was well rewarded, as the carving had a much more lovely message than I would have imagined. Let's take a closer look....

A golden pumpkin with leafs and tendrils, a cheeky little butterfly (I love the smile on its face!), and a character reading 'shou'...
Typically, the motifs and designs in Chinese art and crafts are seldom chosen only to be decorative, but because of the meaning they convey. To make things more layered, a design or motif can have several meanings depending on how it is depicted or what other motifs it is combined with, much like the Chinese characters of writing that can be read in several ways depending on the context. Verbal 'puns' are also typical - the Chinese language is full of homonyms, words pronounced the same than another, but with completely different meaning (and often spelling). So, just to mention of the most common and loved ones, "fu" that means both "bat" and "good wishes", so a depiction of a bat has become a symbol for "good luck". So how does any of this apply to my carving?
Despite its small size (only 14x40 cm), it is loaded with symbolism that Chinese viewers would have understood in the olden days. Starting from the left and proceeding to right, the first motif in the carving is a pumpkin, accompanied by a happy little butterfly and adorned by an almost stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly. Naturally, the butterfly could just be happy to see the pumpkin, but for the Chinese, fruits and vegetables that grow on vines and have many seeds (like the gourds, cucumbers and melons) are associated with fertility.
The leaves and tendrils around it, known as wan in Chinese, is also a homonym with wan meaning "10,000", which makes the depiction even more auspicious, adding an expression of "many" to the wish of fertility. The butterfly - hudie - is also a homonym with die, meaning "repeatedly" or "again and again" So combined with the pumpkin here, the butterfly expresses the desire for many births, and for repeated generations of children. And what about the stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly? It is the simplified, round form of character shou, representing longevity that can actually be read "live one's full span and die a natural death".
A five-stringed zither with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, accompanied by a lotus flower peeking from the leaves of the citrus further to the right...

In the middle of the panel, there is a five-stringed musical instrument that reminds of a zither, with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, and with a lotus flower and a bud peeking from the leaves of the citrus to the right, like they were listening to some music picked from the instrument by an invisible player. Now, in Chinese art, musical instruments often symbolize matrimonial harmony and mutual affection between the husband and wife - not a far-fetched suggestion really when thinking of the melodies provided by their harmonious strings.
Together with the lotus, another symbol for marital harmony, they become the thematical symbol of consistency - and again, in Chinese art, nothing exists in isolation of its surroundings, which means that the overall theme of marital harmony must be the right interpretation of this combination.
The ribbon itself, so common that it often is overlooked purely as a decorative element, of course is not so. Ribbons play an important role in emphasizing the auspicious messages of the motifs surrounding it (or like here, under it). They can also tie them together, accentuating their connected meanings. Ribbon - dai in Chinese - has also two phonetic twins: "to bear, bring along", and "generations", so it adds the joyful wish for successive generations to follow - something that again goes well with the overall theme of the carving.

 Two Buddha's hand lemons.

The last motif represents two Buddha's hand lemons, hanging among abundant leaves. These inedible fruit (well, you can candy the peel, but that's about it) are said to resemble the hand position of Buddha while he was meditating. So there is a wink to Buddhism, one of the most important religions in China. Also, there's yet another verbal allusion: the similarity of sounds in fo (Buddha) and fu (happiness), and shou (hand) and shou (longevity - which we already met above in the pumpkin picture), create together the favorable combination of "happiness and longevity".
And if I haven't tired you out yet, I still want to say that the more I learn, the more interesting "decoding" Chinese arts gets. Just look what I found in the dusty cardboard box: not only a old wooden carving, but a beautifully coded message of marital harmony with joyful wishes of many descendants and a happy, well-lived and long life. As Patricia writes in her book, the Chinese love auspicious symbols and have a great belief in that pictures function like "lucky charms", encouraging all the good things they depict. Which means that I need to find a place of honor for this little carving in our home so that it can freely "emit" its happy message around!
Most of the information above was taken from Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery". If you have the slightest interest in symbolism in Chinese art, do buy this book, it is a beautifully illustrated source of well-researched information.
PS - Please oversee the western spelling of Chinese words - I do not have the correct programs to write down them correctly.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ramblings from the Sri Mariamman Temple

A pantheon of Hindu gods, the more colorful, the better - according to the lecturer who gave a tour here, a Hindu temple should appeal to all of our senses - sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and thought, which is the sixth of our senses.... This is the gopuram, the massive entrance tower leading to the Sri Mariamman temple in the middle of Chinatown in Singapore. 

Long time, no posts... I'm not sure if I've been too busy, too lazy, or just too distracted to write anything for almost six weeks - the longest blog silence since I started this little "blog journal" in June 2008. Early September, I started the so called "Docent training" at the Asia Civilizations Museum, and together with my part time work and other things happening, I just haven't been able to jot down even the smallest of posts here.

A colorful and loud profession honoring the gods - scented tuberose and rose petals were thrown on the holy man, who was chanting loudly accompanied by small drums and other instruments and shielded by a colorful umbrella... truly an attack on the senses, if you are not used to high levels of noise.

Baby Krisna sucking his toes on a banyan leaf, contemplating the creation of the world... the full story and its meanings are really quite complicated, and would take far too much place here. The background was probably the only white surface in the temple... The Hindu imagery and pictorial language - from the lavish forms and decorations to the gaudy colors - are so extravagant, that my "Scandinavian minimalist eyes" have never really enjoyed them as art, but I still find them interesting from the cultural point of view.
I'm not sure how my studies are going. Despite the fact that I love the arts and cultures of Asia, and was amazingly happy to have been accepted to the program (it is on volunteer base, no specific academic requirements), I've been struggling with the course, many times feeling like a complete failure. Especially the "practical exercises", where you need to "recite" details of given weekly concepts and artifacts in front of your group has been a challenge. You need to do this without notes or seeing the actual object, so I tend to get lost, forget my words in front of the group, and/or just generally feel like an complete idiot, forgetting all beautiful details that I'd written and practiced about them for days before. Even if I'm definitely not an extrovert, I wouldn't describe myself as shy either, and I've held many presentations in the past quite successfully, something that is just not happening now. Also, I actually do have a degree in Art History and love the subject dearly, so my discomfort and general unhappiness about how I'm managing has been a great surprise and a disappointment to me the last six weeks. The group is quite competitive, and I'm often a bit uncomfortable with large gatherings of females anyway (somehow, I've always worked better with groups of men, however competitive they might be), so maybe I'm just having hard time adjusting... Anyway, I'm hanging out there, hoping that things get better with more practice. And even if I'll never be the best of the class, I am still learning a lot and adding to my "capital of knowledge", which will be my reward when the training ends.

Just inside the entrance to the temple - a riot of colors and forms, together with gods and sacred animals... Our lecturer told that Hinduism in not pantheistic, despite often being mentioned as such, but that the gods are all parts that together form one eternal god - like drops of water that together make an ocean...The different "gods" just highlight different aspects of the one eternal god, and can be venerated separately according to what feels right for one who is praying.  

Goddess Meenakshi, an Avatar of Parvathi, god Shiva's consort, holding a green parakeet, with the ferocious eyes of Kali beaming from above (both Kali and Parvathi are consorts of lord Shiva - the Hindu religious mythology really is quite complicated!). Again, eye-scorching colors and extravagant decorations to wake your senses...
Otherwise, I've been busy at work. The Minister of Economy and Trade from Finland will be visiting Singapore on Wednesday and I've been arranging a seminar for the Finnish Business Community here. So in addition to the studies, you probably understand that I've not been able to do much cultural exploration for the moment and desperately need to get back on track... Until I get going again, here are a couple of pictures from a Docent training lecture at the Sri Mariamman temple in Chinatown. It is the oldest Hindu temple and also a major tourist attraction in Singapore. "Skammen den som ger sig", as they say in Sweden, which means something like "shame on the one who gives up'. That will be my motto for my studies and all other things cultural for the next couple of months.  

 A holy man in a very pretty pink cloth, watching over visitors inside the inner temple.

All these tummies... Ganesha, easily recognized because of his elephant head, is widely known as the "remover of obstacles". He is also the patron of arts and sciences, and Lord of the Letters and Learning -  amongst many other divine duties. Ganesha is an extremely popular deity amongst Hindus, and in Singapore, statues of him are commonly found by the entrance of Hindu homes. For the moment, I could definitely use some little help from him in my studies...
And last - Sri Mariamman herself, decked with flower garlands and with incense and other offerings on the table in front of her. On the right, there is even a small ceremonial cradle - this mother goddess is worshipped as the goddess of fertility, and offerings are left for her in hope that she brings rain and prosperity - all quite logical connections really.