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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Weaving the golden silks of Angkor

Golden and fluffy native Cambodian silkworm cocoons attached to their special rearing baskets.
I haven't posted about silk weaving in Cambodia earlier as I thought my pictures weren't good enough for publishing... however, I've bee talking about this with both family and friends many times since our visit there in last October, so I decided to share what I'd seen despite the less than perfect pictures.

So here they are, my snapshots from the silk farm and "factory" of Artisans Angkor, one of the finest silk producers in Siem Reap; a company that not only sells stunningly beautiful silk products, but has also created many job opportunities for young people living in Cambodia's rural areas by reviving production of many traditional handicrafts there. The little factory is just outside the city and geared towards tourists willing to learn how more about the production of traditional Khmer "golden silk", called so because of it's natural, shiny yellow color as it is unraveled from the native Cambodian silk cocoons. 
Rows of white mulberries, grown as food for the silkworms - like pandas, they only eat one kind of plant, the white mulberry (that's why it took so long for Europeans to figure out how to grow silkworms; they didn't know what picky eaters they are...).

The worms are fattened before they reach the cocooning stage.

 Worms getting ready to spin their cocoons - poor little doomed creatures (the first picture of this post should actually come after this, with the mature cocoons).
Silk has been produced in Cambodia since the days of Angkor, and there are still almost 20 000 active weavers, mainly near Siem Reap and in the southern parts of the country. While silk production declined sharply during the 30 years of war and political unrest, it has been experiencing a revival, with a new generation taking over by learning the complicated process of silk making, from mulberry farming and silkworm rearing to cocoon processing and spinning the thin, lustrous threads into colorful fabrics with intricate patterns so typical for the Khmers of Cambodia.

Soft silk cocoons, before they are sorted by color.

Thousands and thousands of cocoons; the beautifully soft, golden color occurs naturally in the Cambodian silk. 
 The cocoons are cooked, and the thin silk threads are separated and spun per hand from the kettles; it takes long time to learn to do this complicated maneuver...  

A poor little naked silk worm after being cooked.

I'm not quite sure about the right terminology here... after the first spinning, the thin threads are processed further to produce glossy skeins of silk in many shades of yellow and gold.

Seeing the actual - rather painstaking, if you ask me - process of silk making from the mulberries and worms to the final, stunningly beautiful fabrics, scarfs and clothes was a real eye opener. The level of sophistication of the Asian cultures, producing and spinning these less that hair-thin strands for hundreds of years ago and planning the complicated colorings for the patterns is just mind-blowing - just looking at the dip-dyed silk garn, ready to be woven in a certain, predetermined order made my brain hurt a little. To have figured the technique out (without any computers...) is so telling - only a society of high level of knowledge, sophistication and resources - for spending time producing, using and appreciating them - could have come up with this kind of beautiful products. But then, the visitors, priests and dancers at the impressive temples of Angkor surely needed something accordingly handsome and beautiful to wear while praying to their gods.

The skeins are colored with plant based, natural dyes... here with young banana leafs.
 Pots of colorful dyes...

The patterns of many of the fabrics are woven, and the thread needs to be colored in a predetermined order for it to form the pattern on the loom. 

 A display of raw and dyed silks.

When visiting Cambodia, please pay attention and get the real, hand-made silks of the Khmers, and not the cheaper, imported goods flowing in from China to the many outdoor markets and shops - you will not only be supporting a centuries old Khmer handicraft tradition, but also the local communities that educate and employ the young women and men of Cambodia. These beautiful, painstakingly produced silks are more than worth every penny they ask for them.

 The carefully colored skeins (above) are spun on wooden sticks (below) that are then woven in certain order to form the pattern. 

I just couldn't get my head around the fact that the weavers get the single, dyed threads to form such exact patterns in the end... 

Like pure magic, the pattern emerges from the hands of the patient and skilled weavers.
 A relief depicting a procession of King Suryavarman II at Angkor Wat sometime at the 12th century... all wearing skillfully weaved robes and clothes, early predecessors of the fabrics woven today near Siem Reap and other places in Cambodia.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tiny tidbits from Paris...

Breakfast at the Jardin des Tuileries: created in 1564, (redesigned and) opened to the public in 1667, and still going strong. I just love the sense of history and permanence in Paris and other old European cities; it makes me feel safe, and part of the chain of humanity.
Have I ever mentioned how much I love Paris? I had almost forgotten myself, until we spent two very touristy and busy days there now in July, before flying further to Stockholm (and Seattle, for part of the family). Luckily, my girls, especially my cosmopolitan and artistic oldest, loved the city too with a passion, so I can hopefully look forward to some wonderful trips there when in Stockholm again - I can't believe it will be only 2.5 hours away then...
More from the Tuileries, designed by André Le Nôtre in 1664, with the enormous vases and now quite wildly planted "plate-bandes" that are parts of the majestically formal design.

View towards the Musée du Louvre; Parisians and tourists alike relax on the chairs generously strewn everywhere in the park.
Actually, my first memory of Paris involves getting lost in the Louvre. My siblings and I ran off from our parents without telling them where, eager to see the Mona Lisa (I was about ten years old then). Grown in a very small town as we were, we didn't quite grasp how enormous the old museum was - it would probably fill the whole city center of Turku. Of course, our parents panicked and were understandably upset and angry, when they found us two hours later, tired and scared, sitting in front of the famous painting and not knowing what to do or whom to ask for help.
Later, I travelled to Paris quite often during my years as a "business woman". As the Nordic Marketing Manager, I reported the European Director seated at the European headquarters at La Defense (the "business phase" of my life went over pretty fast, but I still smile at the memories of me and my laptop, traipsing around Europe and US trying to look very professional...). The best things from that time was that whenever possible, I saved the company money and "sacrificed" my free time by staying over the weekend in Paris - in those good old days, flight tickets were cheaper that way, not a bad way to be thrifty... And I can't ever forget a weeklong trip to Paris with my Art History professors; a full week of listening to their amazing stories about pretty much everything within art, history and architecture while walking through the streets and museums is one of my fondest memories of my years at the Stockholm University...

Musée du quai Branly on the edge of the Quai Branly and the Seine, and only hundred meters from the Eiffel Tower, has one of the lushest wall gardens on its façade.

The 200 meters long and 12 meter high green wall on the exterior of the museum was designed and planted by Gilles Clément and Patrick Blanch, masters of the vertical gardening. I do love it, but it looks at the same time... quite hirsute???
This time, I really wasn't on a garden trip, but have a couple of photos that I took along the way. Paris is extremely beautiful, even when we only got to the busy and most "tourist-affected" areas (we were tourists, too, I don't mean to be judgmental here...). What you need in these old European cities is time; time to walk, time to enjoy, time to find your own little sweet spots and haunts... the little cafes and special park benches, winding streets and surprising views. So even if I love Asia too, I really can't wait to be back in "good old Europe" at some stage, hopefully not all to far in the future, again.

What I love about Paris (and Stockholm, and many, many other old European cities) is the scale; four to six floors, almost no skyscrapers towering over the horizon and dwarfing the human beings. Also, I love the alleys, the parks and the plantings... and the way people make nests of their homes, with beautiful greenery flowing over (of course, this is the world of the lucky ones, but let me be a bit naïve for just a moment...). That's were I would like to live, in that apartment with the blooming balcony... Not likely, but at least I'll be able to visit more often from Stockholm.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Flower fields at Nyckelviken

The mid-18th century gazebo at Nyckelviken would be the perfect place for romantic meetings - I'm sure that the young members of the owning families sneaked out here for little tête-à-têtes every now and then...

Nyckelviken is one of my favorites, a small 18th century manor house just 10 minutes outside the city center (yes, despite trying to be so cool, Stockholm is that small). Arriving through the gravel drive through the forest, and walking down the long alley flanked by old lindens transfers you back in time to the countryside, despite being so near to the bustle of the modern world.
First glimpse of the vegetable gardens from the linden alley.

The manor house, now serving as a café and a restaurant...

The cute little billiard wing, which was also used for dinner dances. Please, can I be "transferred" to a 18th century dance party here, just for once?
Stora Nyckelviken, the yellow-painted main house, was built by Swedish East India Company director Herman Peterson around 1746, and has since then been owned by many nobilities and well-known personalities of the Swedish history. The original form of the building, including the color that was supposed to imitate sandstone from Italy, is still beautifully preserved, even if it is now somewhat "degraded" and serves as a café and a restaurant. There are two additional, red-painted wings, a billiard wing (also used for dinner dances in the olden days), a beautiful gazebo and several barns together with other utility buildings, some of which now house rabbits, chicken, pigs, ponies and other cute animals for kids to pet. In summer, the cliffs by the sea are excellent for swimming, and in wintertime, the long hills leading to the cliffs by the sea are perfect for sledding. There are even outdoor fire pits and sitting places where everyone can barbeque their home-brought sausages. Not surprisingly, Nyckelviken is popular among families living in the area, including mine; I have many fond memories of my girls with red cheeks and frozen little fingers, waiting impatiently for their hotdogs and hot cordial after a couple of hours in the snow.
One of the small, red-painted wings, now a tiny local museum...

 The central axis leading via the gardens from the manor to the gazebo; it is so good to see that the baroque style and elements have been preserved even when the garden styles have changed during the centuries.

 Flower fields in the old vegetable gardens; only part of them now grow edibles.
The old gardens still have their central baroque axis leading from the manor to the gazebo, and old lilac hedges separate the wings and the "garden proper" from the vegetable gardens. The many owners of Nyckelviken used to grow vegetables for the household both for the manor and for their houses in the city, but today, the gardens are mainly for show and for testing different gardening practices and for education - some lucky local school kids get to help harvesting the produce in the autumn. And of course, as "fika"(having a coffee, preferable with a cinnamon bun) is somewhat of a national sport in Sweden, there is an excellent café that serves delicious concoctions - many of which are baked with the fruits an berries from the gardens - for the hungry wanderer. Absolutely lovely, and well worth a detour if you are in the area.
 Beans and peonies in the kitchen garden... 
 Rows and rows of flowers in the cutting garden...

  ...and a final picture from the cutting garden, with the unusual orangery (nearly no glass panes - what kind of orangery is that?) in the background.