Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sian Teck Tng Vegetarian Convent, a remnant of a lost world

The Sian Teck Tng Vegetarian Convent at 57 Cuppage Road - a remnant of the past now squeezed between huge office buildings and an expressway... A big truck was parked in front of it while I visited, so I had to borrow this picture from Kent Neo.
Yesterday, I got to see Sian Teck Tng vegetarian convent, which is one of the less know temples of Singapore. I'd heard about it before, but hadn't quite understood where to find it - 57 Cuppage Road is kind of an odd place since the substantial road works and building works done in the 1970s. Today, the monastery (also called and used as temple by people outside the monastery) is situated behind huge office buildings and the Central Expressway; it is the last remnant of a lost world which consisted of a quiet road with several large Straits Colonial style houses on one side of the Convent and a large temple garden on the other.

The Sian Teck Tng convent was originally established in 1883 for poor widows and orphans (female) as a safe home for them to worship Buddha and live a virtuous life - which must have been a challenge in the late 19th century busy trading center of Singapore, full of prying seamen and traders from all parts of the world. The current building celebrated it's 111th birthday just recently. It was built on the initiative of Master Ma Choon Qing in 1902, and funds for the elaborate Straits Colonial style building were donated by Buddhist devotees and well-wishers, who all got their names carved in two large stone tablets, one on each side wall of the main terrace.

Befittingly, the temple honors the feminine deity of Guan Yin, also known as the Goddess of Mercy. A smallish group of women - some of them way over 80 years old, like the tiny and friendly old lady who was resting in the dining room while I visited - still live in the convent, even if the younger generation now works outside the convent walls. People are free to knock on the door and step in to leave offerings to Guan Yin and to pray, and the convent relies on donations for its subsistence. One of the most important days of the temple are the Guan Yin festivals, which fall on the 19th day of the second, sixth, and ninth lunar months. All food - served daily for the residents and for visitors during the celebrations - is strictly vegetarian, and it is still prepared in the old kitchen, with two large pans over a gas flame.

Today, cars speeding on the express lanes past the convent provide a never-ending accompaniment to the prayers and chanting inside the old walls. Of course, cities grow and things change, but I still very sad about how much of the history of Singapore has already been torn down and still disappears daily at a far too fast pace. I just hope that this beautiful fragment from the past will be allowed to survive in the bright and brave future of Singapore...

An old picture with resident orphans and widows in front of the Convent.
Altar for Guan Yin is places directly after the entrance to the building. Unfortunately, the glass cover makes it difficult to see the sculpture of the deity sitting behind (it is the female figure with several pairs of arms in the middle of the altar behind the offer table).

Offerings for Guan Yin are most often fruit and incense - the fruit is changed daily (and after being offered to the gods, it is eaten by the residents and visitors).
 An elaborately decorated door openings leads to the next room with the next altar... wooden fretwork was commonly used in Singaporean buildings as it let through the breeze while still functioning as a space divider.

 Close-ups of parts of the fretwork, with Buddha's Hand lemons and pomegranates as decorative motifs. See below for more about them as Buddhist symbols...
The light well in the middle of the house was originally open to the skies and let in both light and breeze - and pouring rain, when it was the monsoon season (and pigeons, I assume?). It is now covered with glass.

Four fanlight window openings, with fan-formed paintings over them, and a panel of Italian hand-painted tiles. The first fan-formed painting depicts peaches, a symbol for longevity in Chinese art; the second, oranges (mandarins), an extremely auspicious plant for the Chinese and a symbol for riches and good fortune (quite touching, when thinking of the residents of the convent). Below, two more window openings from the same room - the first with pomegranates, which is a symbol for fecundity and a verbal homophone for "generations" (and thus a visual suggestion of "generations of offspring"). The last depicts Buddha's Hand lemons, that stand both for longevity and for spiritual blessings.
When the Buddha's Hand lemon is depicted together with pomegranates and peaches, they become the Three Abundances, where peaches stand for longevity, the pomegranate with its many seeds for progeny, and the lemon for the blessings that bring happiness.

Another altar in an inner room is dedicated to the important donators and deceased residents of the convent. Commemorative plates - large golden ones for the donators and tiny ones for the residents - can be seen behind the glass. In front of the altar, incense, fruit and candy are displayed as offerings to their spirits. The lotus painted on the front of the table for the offerings is an important symbol in Chinese and Buddhist art as it stands for many qualities associated with the religion like purity and harmony. Also, Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, to whom the Sian Teck Tgn Temple is dedicated, is always depicted holding a long-stemmed lotus in her hand. 
A couple of old, charming cupboards in the kitchen; they are standing in stone cups which were filled with salted water to keep ants and mice out from the food inside them.
The kitchen with two large fireplaces for cooking; one the wall, a small altar dedicated to the Kitchen God, a very powerful god who listened to all gossip and had to be kept happy with constant offerings to ensure that the pots and pans were kept full of supplies.
And last...what a contrast - modern times catching up with the Convent! (21 'likes' while I checked - time to add one...)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hunting and gathering in Singapore

Despite the name of my blog, I have to admit my gardening is down to a minimal level - I water my pots when I remember and hope that the monsoon-like downpours take care of the rest. The other day, I sprinkled some organic slow-release fertilizer into all of them, and felt so virtuous that I treated myself to a glass of white afterwards.
A wonderful pair of old gatepost elephants - Charlie, the owner of "Junkie's Corner" didn't want to sell them to me as he said they are broken, but I might have to talk to him again - they look so gentle and thoughtful with their lifted trunks.
I've never been a great container gardener besides one huge potted lemon tree that I grew and carefully nurtured while in Sweden - the seeds came from a couple of lemons that I took with me from my tree in Albert Park in Melbourne (I still miss picking fresh lemons daily from the extremely prolific tree, it was such a treat). Otherwise, I enjoy more growing things in ground and seeing how they develop (hopefully) while the time flows by, but this does not mean that I don't appreciate a nice, preferably big pot or other garden ornament when I see it.
Up left, more gatepost decorations: a selection of foo lions that I've written about earlier. And under them, large water jars with dragon decorations - I bought a similar, large antique one for a while ago and just love it. And the roadside was full of dragon pots planted with various plants - pots planted with mandarins and kumquats were typical during the Chinese New Year celebrations, which I've also written about earlier.
A couple of days ago, I went along a tour guided by Singapore's national treasure Geraldene Lowe where she took us to several hard-to-find and off-the-beaten-track antique and junk stores - exactly the kind of places I enjoy, where things are dusty and dirty, and where you need to see the potential yourself instead of being fed carefully staged oriental compositions especially designed for us "expats" in mind, as so often is the case in Singapore. Some of the ladies on the tour felt a bit overwhelmed because of the same thing - they talked about how difficult it is to see the things in their own homes when they are so dirty - but my inner hunter woke up directly, looking for treasures for a future garden somewhere. And I am lucky to have storage room for some more garden stuff (despite that I can still recall the looks I got from the moving guys in Seattle when I asked them to pack all my pots in the container and to be careful not to break any), so even if I am trying hard to keep to my minimalist mantra otherwise, this is the area where I am making an exception...
And - if you are the least interested in the history and architecture of Singapore, do check out the wide variety of tours that Geraldene does - her knowledge of Singapore is just incredible and she is such an enjoyable storyteller; you will never look at Singapore with the same eyes again!

A sculpture representing the "Three wise monkeys", embodying the Confucian maxim of "See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil"... although not quite antique, this otherwise charming sculpture got to follow me home, and reminds me from the living room balcony of the wise principle it represents...

The shop is housed in enormous old stables with a very interesting roof structure - the carefully tiled layers keep the rain away while still letting the breeze through.

Charlie has an enormous collection of garden decorations and other elements from the 1920's and 30's  to the 60's - here, art deco containers mingle with concrete stools and bird baths in the shape of sea shells. 

Of course, some of the stuff was complete kitsch, like these "bambis" and the scary plastic "man", but Charlie told that the "bambis" were actually very rare to find today, and beautifully made in concrete and hand painted. Though tempted, they didn't follow me home this time :-), but I think they would look wonderful by a strict, architectural house...

Of course, Buddha heads are the new garden gnomes; you can't get away from them today wherever you are in the world... and so complete no-no for me, which this guy seems to know as he continues his afternoon nap while I browse past.

Two huge old, traditionally painted pots, bigger than baby baths... all to heavy to be dragged anywhere, even if they would look wonderful against the sea in my garden in Sweden. 

One more picture from the outside - and I haven't even shown any pictures from inside the stables, completely crammed with furniture and all things possible from the past decades. Lots of junk, lots of fun (and some pearls). For opening times, call Charlie on 9791 2607.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mangroves, low tide

Mangroves at low tide - Nikoi Island in Indonesia.
This has nothing to do with the usual subject of my blog - I don't think anyone has ever planted mangroves in their gardens... Just a couple of pictures from Nikoi Island in Indonesia, very close to Singapore, where we spent a couple of days last week. I couldn't resist walking around the little island while the tide was low, and was quite taken by these sculptural plants on one side of the island, pushing through the smallest of openings in the cement hard coral reef exposed by the tide (the beaches on the other side of the island were quite paradise-like, as you can almost guess from the last picture where the pure, white sand slowly takes over from the corals...).

Only a short post, as I'm having a huge cold since a couple of days back - even if having a 'cold' sounds like a complete linguistic anachronism (is there such a concept? or is it anatopism? never mind, my brain resist thinking for the moment...) in the tropics of Singapore. Yesterday, the outside temperature of 38C matched exactly my fever levels, and while briefly walking outside, it was difficult to know where my head ended and the surrounding hot air started. So no more blogging today, just a cup of tea and hopefully a fast recovery. Amazing mangroves, though.


Monday, May 6, 2013

A moment at the Shoren-in Temple

A visitor having a pause from the daily grind on the wooden veranda at Shoren-in.
With the risk of sounding all too unorganized as a traveler, my visit to Shoren-in was again quite improvised... On my way to another garden, I was attracted by the ancient camphor trees in front of some old gates, and couldn't keep myself from peeking in.

The Shoren-in temple is well-known in Japan for its strolling gardens, even if they seldom figure on any international books or websites. The building feels more like a residence, and has actually functioned as such for the imperial family during the Great Fire which raged in Kyoto in 1788 - at that time, it was called Awata Gosho, or the Awata Imperial Palace, despite being quite tiny for the purpose. 

The gnarled, ancient camphor tree that attracted me to peek inside the temple gates... there are five of them in total within the temple grounds.
The site is so called monzeki temple, which is a term only used for temples with strong connections to families of imperial or high rank (like high court officers, or samurai families). Traditionally, members of these families served as the head monks or nuns of monzeki temples, so these institutions had a great influence in the Japanese Buddhism because of their close cultural and political relationship with the imperial family and samurai feudal governments.

The temple itself is famous for its statuary as well as for its place in Japanese history; it protected the priests Honen and Shinran, who developed the Tendai-sect of Buddhism in the 13th century. Contemporary followers of this sect regard Shoren-in as a particularly sacred place, which was clearly evident from the silently gracious behavior of the older Japanese who were visiting at the same time as I. Not as severely impressive as Ryoan-ji or as spectacular as Kinkaku-ji, the Shoren-in temple was nevertheless gracefully elegant, and had an wonderfully live and intimate feeling - in my imagination, I could see the noble monks wandering through the paths or sitting on the verandas, deeply sunken to their Zen meditations, just like the visitor during my visit, having a respite from his daily grind on the wooden veranda.
The central Ryushinchi pond; the name means 'Heart of Dragon'. The gardens are at the foot of Mount Awata and take an advantage of the hills behind; see how the bamboo forms a green, vertical curtain behind the pond.

Another view of the Ryushinchi pond; I took this from the veranda that can be seen to the right in the picture above.
 Moving into the next building of the temple, again with verandas for meditating and garden viewing...
Unfortunately, I don't think my pictures like the one above make justice to the place... the buildings and gardens are connected by covered wooden walkways, all of which offer different views of the gardens. 

One of the buildings with a wonderful view of the gardens; tatamis cover all the floors, and the walls (sometimes sliding doors) are painted beautifully - as here, with bold and quite modern looking lotus flowers.

 And one more huge camphor tree, from the inner gardens. I have this strange love for old trees that I can't really explain - I feel really close and protective of them... and here, again, is one to love.