“Western medicine is complicated whereas Chinese medicine is simple. To the Chinese sinseh, every single bodily malfunction boils down to heatiness, boils down to your liver. To heal your liver, they’d prescribe you bitter herbs to boil and drink. To speed up healing, you sleep. Under multifold layers of blanket.”
‘Kuih Bangkit’ my personal favourite Chinese New Year cookie, enjoys the same popularity with the Malay communities during Hari Raya, and particularly those from Riau in Indonesia, and the Baba Nyonya communities of Malacca, Penang and Singapore. Bangkit which means “rise” in Bahasa, traditionally has a little red dot tipped on the body (which turns pink when mixed with the flour), on each piece of the Nyonya version. And these pieces were usually of animal form — Goldfishes, Chickens, etc. casted from wooden moulds then baked.
This peculiarity of consecrating objects with red dots, is ceremonial, and has its belief rooted in Taoism. For it was believed that these red dots would bring man-made objects to life, hence it is with the annual initiation of the Lion and Dragon Dance by their troupes, and the paper effigies burnt for the deceased during funerals. Taoist mediums also dispenses yellow paper blessings written with red ink, or blood splatterings from their tongues, when in trance-like state. Believers would then burnt them, throw them into a glass of water, and drink from it, as divine panacea.
This shared delicacy probably has its roots all over the archipelago, the result of harmonious communal living, and the intermarriages between the two races, the Chinese with the Malay in the Straits, from whence resulted the Baba and Nyonya community.
Grief is a state of loss. An emotional upheaval that one feels beit over a divorce, loss of job, death of a loved one. It manifests in 7 stages, some experts argued 5- but it all depends on our equilibrium, our attachment to that party, the circumstances that brought about the loss, and the severity inflicted by the tragedy. The various stages are sequential but rubbery, with no affixed period, and an aggrieved party may sail across, mixing up or skipping some stages in between, and recover in no time at all. The 7 stages are: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and finally, acceptance. But to ride through grief, one must know firstly how grief happens.
Religion has been the pinnacle of mankind. It is responsible for our lifestyle, the constant unrest between nations, civic consciousness, moral conduct and governance. It shapes us to become who and what we are today. However, what most people overlooked is the well known mantra of ‘Giving more so that one could receive.’ An extreme example would be “If anyone slaps you on your right cheek, offer him your left also.” Deep, mysterious parable that is. But a powerful one. That is another topic of discussion altogether.
Giving is an act of love, and giving begins with one being emphatic, generous, happy, caring, or simply, being dutiful. No one will give to their enemies where love doesn’t co-exist. And the more you love someone, the more you will give.
But taking or receiving is inevitable. Taking begins with the suckling of our mothers breasts, till one receives education, and finally when one is fit to take on the world. That dependence comes from one’s natural parents, guardians or sponsors. It is this constant state of receiving that one can mistakenly inherit the dogma of entitlement, thus quite often, a receiver will never know when to give back. Even after they grow into successful adults. Sometimes they defer their plans, others went chasing after rainbows. As a result, their caregivers are neglected because giving is not reciprocated. Until that fateful moment of loss arrives.
The receiver is then confronted with guilt, regret, denial , blaming oneself, the “ifs” I were to do this and that, the longing to do more which they did not initiate when their loved ones is still alive, because there exists an imbalance between giving and receiving. If one would have given enough or more than one receives, grief is short lived. But that is a natural frailty of man. To put off affirmations, praises, visits, giving of gifts. All these can be taught, but never will they ever be fully executed.
But managing grief is entirely different. The rites encountered in certain religions helps the aggrieved to let go. They are the hidden gems subtly designed with human emotions in mind. This if one could afford to, a full rite is better than half-baked ones. The action of burning incense is letting go, the serving of meals and drinks and the giving away of sweets to well wishers is letting go, the throwing of gluttonous rice, the offering of candles, the placing of wreathes and flowers on the casket, the singing of hymns, the shouting of mantras, the placing of bones into urns, throwing flowers into the pit, these rituals were all designed with giving in mind. If one couldn’t afford to, the giving away of the deceased possessions to the poor and underprivileged is another way of letting go. And when one gives, one will gradually let go. And the more one let go, the natural progression lightens our heart to recovery.
So it is right to say that hidden beneath all religions, beit right or wrong, our forefathers whom has designed all these sacred rites and mantras had us in mind. To help us heal.
To know if a person is charmed (In Hokkien’Tiok Kong Thau’), experienced mediums or deliverers will look into the victims pupil and observe its dilation and sheen.
To confirm his suspicion , he will make the suspect crawl under fishing nets left basking at the beach during sunrise or make him cross a river. For it was said that evil spirits wouldn’t cross a river or sea, and so are charms.
For if a person can do that with ease, that means he/she is not suffering from some kind of charm or possession. Evil spirits will also get themselves trapped in the net and so are charms, therefore the possessed will refuse to crawl beneath them. That is the reason why fishing nets has always been part of the accoutrement found above door entrances in shophouses, besides the more popular pakua ‘Eight trigrams’ used in Taoist rituals that has a curve mirror smacked in the centre of it.
If a person is found charmed, the medium or bomoh will first search for the ‘opening’, a gateway where the charm enters from, and then determine the origin of the charm inflicting him. That opening is usually an object left in the garden or main door of the home of that person charmed. Without that gateway, the charm cannot enter the home and attack the person. Evil spirits can also enter homes through other means, like sneaking under umbrellas for instance, which is also another reason why locals shun carrying open umbrellas when they enter into their own houses at night, whilst our fellow Malay friends washes their feet before entering.
The openings or gateway are usually claypots wrapped in cloth left perched in between branches of a tree. Inside the pot, depending on the severity of the infliction, were found rusty nails, amongst other things. The colour of the cloth will also determine where the charm originates from. That will direct the medium to the source if he needs to seek aid, if the charm is too powerful hence refuses to leave that person. A yellow cloth is left by a Chinese shaman, the red, by the Thais, and the black, the Malays. So it was believed that the most fearful charms comes from the Thais.
When they are found, the medium will then perform some incantations, climb up the tree, and dislodge it by the kick of his feet. The act of kicking or knocking it down with the feet is sacred, for if hands were used, the charm will also enter the medium when he picks it up. Other than football, our feet cannot pick up things.
Hence the old wives tale of shunning the idea of picking up things left on the roadside not meant for you.
- Kalituay is a home grown game, fun and lively, played between two opposing teams. It’s origin can be disputed, but it has been played both in the kampongs as well as the city.
It demands the players to be agile with their eyes, swift with their reach, yet nimble on their legs and to win, and the running team should not be caught by the catching team.
The running team must compromise through each of the compartments from line 1 till line 4 and back to line 1 without being caught, hit, touched or slapped by anyone from the catching team.
A perfect run through scores 4 points for the running team. And deducted accordingly if one or more members are caught.
There are three sets for each opposing team, taking turns to be the runner as well as the catcher, and the team that scores highest in the run through without being caught wins the game.
Usually the court size will determine the number of people needed on one team and on a normal scale, a badminton court is ideal with each player from the catching side standing on lines 1,2,3 and 4 as guards. Only the player standing on line 1 is allowed to run up and down the spine and catch, touch, hit or slap any unsuspecting runner that lingers on its spine.
The game begins with both sides getting ready and one runner and the first catcher slapping their palms.
A referee can be appointed to dispute a hit.
(Image outsourced without permission)
The triads were very much the make-up of overseas Chinese in Malaya back in the 1800s, with 7 out of 10 persons either belonging to one brotherhood or the other, depending on which side bullies them. It is an olden day form of a trade union, and it propagated mutual aid and a sense of security to individuals indeed, if one works in the mining field. And a strong cluster cannot be overstated in the wake of problems encountered in a land alien to them. Every member undergoes induction rites and their rituals took on the version of their Chinese counterpart, the ‘Tiandihui’ , otherwise known as the ‘Heaven Earth Sect’ – a Ming loyalists secret society that originates to resist the invasion of Manchus during the Qing Dynasty.
In Malaya, their sworn brotherhood and protectionist policy instinctively appeals to many, especially when succumbed to duress or bully. Their brotherhood ensures peace, and a stable income for all. And so it was, that the British had a hard time flushing them out that gradually, a triad member named Yap Ah Loy had to be deployed to mediate and ensure peace on behalf of their rule.
Gang wars was a natural occurrence then, when differences cannot be reconciled, and some went full blown, making its way into our annals of history. Every initiated member were issued weapons, many self made, the most popular being the Malay parang once used for clearing lands is now used for butchering, the trident-like spears, wooden poles, and of course, knuckle dusters (a recent find shown below) which delivers excruciating pain when a blow is received.
Gradually, the British, in dire straits and concern over their strength, devised a way to outlaw these secret societies, by encouraging them to register their societies legally, so that every member is a statistic, on the pretext of being philomantic to their cause, grouping themselves by the district that one originates, by dialect spoken, by common surname, and by the trade one belongs to. Of course many remained undercover to work their so called secret activities.
(Below: a zoomorphic shaped bronze knuckle duster)
Mom was a socialite, but dad always insisted that meal time is when everybody sits together at the dining table. The irony was mom seldom sits at home lest to watch us eat our meals. She adores outside food and thus with all her ‘Tai Tai’ friends, they’d cluster together over meals in the most popular of Chinese Restaurants. And because we have lived-in maids, the maids are the ones who cook for us. They are simple dishes. Tau Eu Kay or Bak Cho, and Chai Tau Char. But we enjoyed it. Since young we relish what’s served to us. But she does however prepares herbal soups needed for us to grow. Our breakfast was usually liver with fresh ginger and soy sauce basked in hot water . Sometimes bread and butter with sugar sprinkles, fresh milk from the milkman, sometimes outside food and at times, boiled eggs with Milo. Except for my brother who is quite picky, otherwise we have no trouble adjusting ourselves, my sis and I. We too enjoyed the lavish dinners combing functions, celebrations and dinners my dad is required to attend. As children, we tagged along everywhere they go. That’s executive privilege. When dad goes to work, we usually remind him in sync with this daily recital “to be good, make a lot of money and come back soon.”
Mom was close to her three sisters too. Especially my Jee Ee (2nd aunty) who is somehow always around. My 2nd aunty hos a company which organises variety shows and events in Penang. Inside her stable were Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore film stars and singers. I think she is quite successful in what she does because most of her stars are the very famous ones of that era. So are the band boys she manages. And together with my mom, both of them comb night clubs and bars sought of after dinner ritual if ever they are obligated to attend. Their favourite sport, drink, dance and chat till they drop.
Thus in every aspect, our school life is inundated with our parents social preoccupations so much so that we hardly have evenings of quietness. My dad had his name inscribed on the plague in his alumni , attributed to the largest donor of his ex pupils association. He was also wearing many other social hats. That shophouse in Presgrave Street is our usual haunting ground. There, we played table tennis, mahjong games or simply scribble onto the blackboards. As children, we accompany them and we had our fun. Mom’s favorite sport is talking and there, she is at utmost ease, as she acquaints herself with members of dad’s club. She has her own alumni too. In that era, there wasn’t plenty of fun places to go to. And so I guess, that’s how our parents enjoyment is integrated with ours.A one stop fun club for families. Inside this association are also a full set of musical instruments my dad had donated. They have a band of their own which were regularly invited to perform at functions or religious ceremonies such as Ko Tai’s.
Back in those days, beit at Great World Park or New World, where my dad’s association band sometimes perform, there are amusement games, merry go rounds, ferris wheel, open air cinemas and ad hoc stage. And there are in the midst, candy peddlers, kacang putih sellers. The grounds are usually sandy and wet on rainy days. Where the bands play, they usually have a sort of battle where the best of bands is judged by the crowd they could garner and thus, in between Chinese Pop songs. they will also belt out Western numbers by the spurts.
My maternal grandma’s house was smacked right in the middle of town at Aboo Sittee Lane. And her tyre shop was in Prangin Road (now Lim Chwee Leong Road). Grandma was shrew. It could have been that after the war, she took over the business left by her deceased husband (my maternal grandfather) who was tortured and died in the hands of the Japanese. Or it could have been she managed that tyre shop for there were cousins and in laws in the business registration. Grandma used to ride on human powered trishaws, her grand Mercedes on three wheels, to and from work. Because of her, we had fun riding on these trishaws , to arrive at Goh Phar Teng where we’d have the best Koay Teow Thng, Hokkien Mee and Char Koay Teow. My grandma loves to cook Kiam Chye Ark, a salted vegetable soup broiled with shitake mushrooms and duck or chicken meat. That was my sister’s favourite soup. And from Kiam Chye Ark, the soup will transform into Chai Boey which from the same soup, leftover dishes were thrown in for the extra flavour and they’d relish and relish as they keep on adding the salted vegetables and soup in. Sometimes it takes them weeks to finish just this one dish. My sister is very close to my maternal grandma so, during those days, she sometimes stays with her. And together they’d go watch those Taiwan love movies and have a good cry. I really shook my head at this ‘paying to cry” movies. That is beyond my understanding because if dad brings us to movies or makan-makan (eat out), he’d usually order more than enough beit a Sunday at the Seafood restaurant at Tj Tokong or the cafe besides Cathay Cinema.
On weekends, dad sometimes play hosts to his foreign friends and relatives who visits. He usually brought them sight seeing beit to Batu Maung, the aquarium, Batu Feringghi beaches, seafood restaurants, Snake Temple, Kek Lok Si temple or the Reclining Buddha. As children, we follow where they go to, with our Singapore cousins (mom’s side) , if and when they are are down on holiday. That is because both my Ee’s had their homes in Singapore.
At home, we too had fun. When none of the relatives are around, we will play with our Lego set, Chinese or English chess, Happy Family, Ludo, Scrabble, you named it, we have it. Outside of the semi detached house, we’d cycle, roller skate ar play basketball all day. Dad had a net fixed at the balcony corner and we too have our own personal pond. It was a landscaped feature pool, but with a bit of imagination, it became our private wading pool. Actually it started as a fish pond where dad rears his Japanese carp. Later it became a tortoise pond after the hoards of tortoises we brought home found at the land in Jln Tengah. But we had them donated to Ket Lok Is temple years after because no one likes to regularly clean the pond. We also played kites, because our neighbours kids all play kites. One minute “s”, the next minute stamps. My sis, she reads fiction. Love fiction in particular. We also have a pet dog named ‘Poppy’. Such a lovable watch dog he was. The rest, dad rears following Poppy’s demise was just that, another dog. And everyday, the Indian Mee seller staying next door to our house will bring out his pushcart. There at the corner of our house entrance he ply his trade. And we had plates and plates of his mee because it was so delicious and tasty. At night, opposite our house at the corner of Jones Close, was a ‘Chai Diam Ma’ sort of s grocery cum provision shop. In front is a Rojak Seller (a kind of salad with fruits and condiments eaten with a sticky paste made of prawn). Behind our home, dad built a badminton court in no man’s land. There we had bouts of fun games and dad will invite all his friends to have a game or two. Dad was a sports freak. My brother and I followed him to watch football at the City stadium every time the Penang team plays. Dad himself excels in table tennis winning many times in inter-school alumni competitions and my sis herself was a hurdler also having strings of medals to take home. They are the only two in the family appearing in the trophy corner. And because our house was just a footwalk to Gurney Drive, we often spent our days and evenings there collecting seashells or had fun at the beach. Or just sit there by the pedestrian walkway to wile our time away. The best thing about our Jones Road house was, then, there weren’t much cars. We can literally follow the back path towards Pulau Tikus market and back. Pulau Tikus market is where everyone living in that vicinity buys their fresh produce from and also breakfast.
But there is this place which I was literally fond of. My dad’s estate in Jln Tengah. It’s actually a pig farm he literally built himself out from scratch with the help of some sub contractors but he bought the materials himself and built his first few sheds I guess to cost save. He does that on his own by just by following the guides he gain from books. My daddy is my hero. And I can safely say I inherited his talents.
The pig farm has only one access, with three water convolvulus and hyacinth ponds to reckon with beside two streams that ran across it. And in between these ponds are rows of rambutan and durian trees not to mention banana and pink fleshy guavas. The farm flanked a paddy field. Both rivers sprang a lot of surprises. From monitor lizards as huge as goats to the Malay farmer batting fresh water prawns with their bare fingers, it’s the kind of adventure every child needs. Because every farm owner is entitled a shotgun, dad does his hunting for pests that would invade the fruit trees or the chickens living inside the estate. Sometimes to get us excited, he’d plan for evening hunts which two, or three of my paternal cousins will follow, one was my 3rd Kor’s son who later worked with my dad in the motorcycle shop then the gas shop, and the other two was my 2nd Kor’s sons, whom after school just did some odd jobs with my dad, who in a way feeds them. The farm was minded by my Tua Kor (eldest sis of my dad) and her family. My Tua Kor Tniau literally works for my dad. He was entrusted to look after the pigs. They have a VERY big family of their own and most of them resided there under my dad’s expense. Sometimes in the evenings. the lorries from the wholesalers would arrive, ready to pick the pigs to the slaughter house. And they pay their dues in cash. It is one of the most lucrative business my dad has ever been in, but because labour was scarce, dad was also half hearted. Then came the government who uses the land acquisition act to acquire the land, on the pretext of building low cost houses. The never did. Forty years later, it was sold to Suiwah for RM40 per square feet. Chong Eu, then Chief Minister was made their group Chairman. Dad was aggrieved and seek them out for a compromise where we would build the low cost houses and sell it to the government. They refused so dad brought them to court. Nevertheless, we lost. But not without a fight. Thence, we sold the land to them at RM1.38.
Inside the farm was a tool shed dad built. There, we had fun making our own imaginary space-aged gadgets or toy guns we as children played with. We even attempted at making kites. And many a time, there was the encounters with cobras who loves to hibernate inside bathrooms. Even pythons. Back in those days the new road was practically non existent, so we use the old road bypassing Sungei Ara and there at the crossroads, dad will stop to buy Cucuk Kodoks and Ham Chin Peng (Teatime Sweets). My brother and I will always sit at the river bank fishing, making our fishing rods out of bamboo sticks. They may be small cat fishes but there we were, having a great time exploring. But those were the Sundays without mom. or sis who was with my maternal grandma on most weekends. It’s like a boys club, with wildlife as friends. We did not have much luck with the durians, mangosteens or rambutans because that wasn’t our core business. The whole place is like a fruit orchard, only that gnarls of pigs is what one hears from a distance. But when they do grow, there we are perching ourselves on the trunks relishing the fruits send from heaven. Of course there were some chickens, ducks and goose. Goose acts as deterrent to snakes.
With so much happening, I felt that as children, we are very blessed because then, there was a sense of family bonding. Until life took a turn when I was about 17 years of age. The misfortune taught me alot about face value and how most of daddy’s and mommy’s friends were literally just suckers. They suck the sweetness out of you like chewing gums, then spit you out once there is no more sweet left in you. And that is how I described their friends, even relatives for the matter. Because when my parents were left to borrow, only a handful came to the fore. And got thrashed by the rest. When news spread that we are no longer doing that fine, my sis was in England. Our Chinese New Year celebration, once a festive gala crowded with scores of people, even strangers are now empty spaces filled only with faint echoes of our once booming life. Back in those days, Chinese New Year was a grand affair. We had hoards of visitors, cards from minsters, and five lion dances to reckon with, from the societies that dad and mom are active in. My dad and mom was also politically active, both serves as chairman of the parties in the districts they were involved in. I was in my teens then but I was sensitive enough to understand what was happening. All the food and drinks that mom prepares were literally wasted. It was a traumatic experience for me. One that would remain etched inside my cerebral till this day because on every CNY, these memories will creep back. Unlike most Chinese, I may be the only one who will never enjoy Chinese New Year because it was a bit too traumatic for me.
((To be continued)).
The Chinese could not have been more elegant, unless we hark back to the era of the glitzy twenties, with pompadour hairstyles and sequined dresses bedecked with fineries et al, the way we are supposed to be, all dressed up to roar!
“A statue or figurine is only considered sacred after it has been consecrated by a religious or priest beit in a rite or proper religious ceremony thus to determine if a statue is sacred or not, will never be known because the action of consecration may only involve the laying of hands and the recitation of certain appropriate text whilst others may involve stippling the statue/figurine with ink, the adornment with a chasuble, stole or a garment of some kind including fresh flowers or in other cases, the insertion of certain pulverized ashes inside a carved hole which was then plugged in. Thus without such obvious evidence present on a statue or figurine, one can only guess if a statue or figurine is sacred. Herein provenance becomes an important criteria because if that particular statue was proven to have sat inside a temple before, one can almost be certain that the figurine mentioned is indeed sacred. Anyhow in a way, it does enhance the value but put you into trouble if the origin is an important sacred site, if that is what you are interested in.”
“It is alarming that Chinese has many hidden rules that even I am not aware of. Until I was recently made aware that the paint color used on tombstones, if it is gold, represents dead relatives and red, signifies the living. Thus on the grave of my grandparents, upon my discovery, my beloved cousins, siblings and I, have been dead for more than half a century already . Cant get more incredible than this years Cheng Beng. Drown me please somebody !”
Tok Tiok Tharng
Reunion is held on the first day of Chinese New Year. The servings on a reunion table according to Chinese tradition signifies abundance. Hence it is customary to have as wide an array of food available on this night. In contemporary society, fad and convenience has taken over tradition. Rarely does one still find whole chickens, suckling pigs, sharks fin, abalones, sea cucumbers, and all kinds of mushrooms and fishes being served except on important occasions as appeasing deities on the altar tables.
On the first day of Chinese New Year as Confucianist practice dictates, the entire household of an extended family would tidy themselves up, all nicely coiffured before presenting themselves to the head of the household, (generally the matriarch) to receive special blessings and ang pows (red colored packets containing money symbolizing good luck, prosperity, great health and joy). As receiving ang pows is hierarchical, so it is with the givers, each taking turns distributing whilst juniors kow tow and wish ‘Keong Hee Huat Chye’ as a mark of respect to the givers. In our family we went a step further by serving tea to the elders. It is also customary that once a child got married, they are obligated to give ang pows to their parents. The unmarried are exempted from ang pow giving because to the Chinese, they are still rated a child. Thus, any family members can receive ang pows for as long as they remained single. In our Hokkien tradition, only the womenfolk gives away ang pows. Reason is that the menfolk are supposedly the breadwinners of the family whilst the womenfolk are in charge of household affairs.
This is my extended family.
1st pic- my grandma Gek Kee, receiving blessings from my great grandma, matriarch Saw Kit, at Boon Siew Mansion. Generally as a senior in the family herself, my grandma is no longer entitled to ang pows but I guess that also depends on the generosity of individuals and the wealth of each family.. Matriarch Saw Kit’s life sized bronze statue still graces the Home of the Infirmary, Penang.
2nd pic- Aunt Guat Eng, Aunt Gim Ean (deceased), Aunt Guat Hong, Aunt Loh Ean, Uncle Kah Poh (deceased), unidentified Aunt and my mom (deceased). Aunt Guat Hong and 2nd Tniau Seng Leong kow towed.
3rd pic- Tiny tots group pic with matriarch. Kah Heng (deceased), Kah Bee, and Kah Kheng (deceased).
An extended family has added advantages except for privacy and at least three generations of one household lives and stays together. That was the in -thing of that period for well to do family’s with big houses.
Images copyrighted. Circa 50s.
“The making of ‘Bedak Sejuk’.
My mother’s concoction of rice powder for teenagers was quiet well known. It was supposed to give u a nice complexion and keep ugly pimples away. Her concoction was to soak rice grains for 24 hours and the decanter the smelly water every night b4 bedtime. This would go on for a couple of nights until there was no unwanted smell and the rice grains fermented completely.
To make them smoother she would have them put between the grinding stones and the substance came out smooth. Then she wld mix the paste with grounded sandal wood, maram grass roots and nutmeg seed also grounded.
When she got it to the right consistency everyone was invited to fill up their cones and drip the the drops on to a heshian cloth. Then dried out in the sun.
A cone would sell for 20 sen and a smaller one for half the price. Everybody swore to the efficacy of her ,Bedak Sejuk’. No pimples and claimed a smoother complexion.”
– Reposting an article shared by the late Tan Sri Ani Arope 5th Mar 2014.
To understand the mindset of the Chinese women in particular, one must readily immerse themselves into the many customs, rites and rituals grilled into their thoughts since time immemorial. Collectively, the many do’s and don’ts made up what is known as traditions. And these traditions manifests as good moral behaviours exemplarily found only in the Courts of the Mandarins, Mandarins being people of higher social standing in the world of the Chinese. The whole world describes Chinese as purposeful and enterprising but unknown to many, to be born a women in a Chinese household was to be submissive, not even looked forward to. Heirs must be from the stronger sex and so is the throne.
In olden days China, Emperors are believed to have the mandate from Heaven to govern and rule. And ruled they did, as some of them make rules based on the teachings of anointed people of their times such as Confucius, Lao Tze and the Lord Buddha. Buddhism eventually became a revered religion of the Emperors that spreads its roots from India to the Far East before it was brought to the archipelago of what is today known as Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Buddhism is a tripartite cocktail mix with Confucianism and Taoism. And with religion came steep must-dos and morbid forbids submissive believers adhere to. Some good, others extreme, whilst others are purely bizarre. And with each dynasty, rules bend according to the wishes of such anointed rulers. Some ruled by brawn, others with their brain. Many loyal subjects followed their ruler’s belief, and the rites and practices that goes with it.
There is this age old tradition that womenfolk born into Straits Chinese households of yesteryears are never allowed to straddle beyond the confines of the family home, until the day she marries. They don’t get to go to school because that’s the privilege of the menfolk. So her early childhood education is stifled and fate depended on the matriarch, the maître d’ of the household (who is usually the most senior womenfolk) who taught her rudimentary skills like mannerism and conduct according to the revered teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, rituals, customs and traditions, grooming, seaming, cooking, and cleaning the once fashionable extended family home where three generations of the same family purportedly lived together in a perpetual cyclic motion till fate and time decides the future outcome. All in the course of preparing her to be a commendable maiden for a fleeting finale, to be given away in holy matrimony to a suitor she never had seen nor knew of.
And thank god for the trendy middle courtyard that lungs the passageways, she could play and mingle with her siblings and cousins day and night amid some greenery besides catching the occasional glimpse of the moon, the cold breeze, and the pelting of rain. Not forgetting the daily updates from gossips happening in and out of the kitchen to revitalise and work her sanity.
Womenfolk in the Straits Chinese household never get to choose their own husbands. And so is her wedding date and other preferences. They are the domesticated party to the nuptial agreement by virtue of tradition while the menfolk were encouraged to work hard for a living and raise his own family. Everything is adhered to, in strict century old traditions and rituals of which by now she is routinely acquainted with and her suitor, like an unwrapped gift, comes with surprises and add-ons depending on her luck pre-assessed by her own three generations of extended family headed by the matriarch, after bouts and bouts of cordial discussions between both families with a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) as their intermediary.
To look for a Chinese wife, the menfolk would cluster themselves along the roadsides and riverbank ready to catch a glimpse of the most likely love interest who would during Chap Goh Meh (or the Fifteenth Moon of the Chinese Calendar), arrive in a motorcade to participate in the quaintest ritual of all- an annual courtship gala of throwing Mandarin oranges (Tim Kum) into the river or sea which is believed to attract blessings of a good marriage for the maidens and likewise for the menfolk who threw apples (Kor) for the same reason- to find a good wife. Once a year, these womenfolks would be heavily coiffured and decked in the finest of jewellery where they were given permission to leave their homes in lure of the pearl of great price. And these Chinese Cinderella’s do not dare leave their slippers behind. Chastity is of great importance and honour to the Chinese household (hence the roasted piglet adorned with a paper-cut tail on the offering table!) what more they must be proven on the wedding night or the menfolk can revoke their consummation if found to be in the contrary. Thus, there is no better way than to keep them in the safe confines of three generations of walking cctv’s than to expect unruly things from happening to a maiden before she got married.
Upon spotting his chosen candidate, the man would then return home and express his love interest to his own family who would then hire a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) to investigate the maiden’s family background and demands before pairing them up. If fate were to be cordial to them.
Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism rituals reigns thick in these households beginning from the early migration of the Chinese to the southern hemisphere until the late sixties. Therefore the practice of honouring and respecting the elders not forgetting appeasing the spirits of bygone ancestors is encouraged to ensure abundance of blessings to come. These believes and practices were then handed down the generations and faithfully re-enacted year after year.
Where taboo is concern, misfortunes and the mere mentioning of the word ‘death’ was frowned upon by the Chinese. That said, the rites and rituals of appeasing spirits is common place. Thus the Chinese All Souls Day (Cheng Beng) is marked by tomb cleansing, paying homage and a family get together.
These practices continued till the modern day for some families but as the months and years passes by, succumbed by the British Colonialists who took a stranglehold of our motherland, many traditions and customs were gradually weeded out. Not by the British but by the inquisitive repatriators. Progress took on new forms. Dwellers became more liberal. And in came concerns and fairer treatment for the fairer sex.
Nowadays, Chinese womenfolks can finish school, choose their own husbands, travel and as the larger extended family homes became more and more expensive to maintain, each family went their own way leaving behind derelict mansions being consumed by weeds and undergrowths. Whilst some prefer to stay out of town, there are those who strive for a living in the bustling city. There is no longer the once landscaped courtyard that embellishes a family home and a compound of today is no bigger than five strides both-ways. Many of these womenfolk now has the privilege to travel West and as a result, many exchange their wooden clogs and embroidered sandals for stilettos. Many of these privileged womenfolk intermarried with foreigners and never came back.
However, for those who do, many converted and eventually gave up Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism practices. But at the back of the minds of these neophytes stood subconscious moral teachings and observations ingrained into them since time immemorial. When they returned, they too hardly break these laws in front of their elders for fear of being beaten, chastised, or estranged. In consolation, they would assure themselves that these are the customs of the Chinese which has nothing to do with their own belief at all. These includes the annual celebrations of Chinese New Year and All Souls Day. And chastity was surprisingly still a big hit till the early seventies.
“Chiak Thor tau,
Chiak Lau Lau.”
Is a Hokkien Rhyme frequently uttered during Chinese New Year. Translated to mean “Eating groundnuts, ensures longevity.”, it became customary to serve groundnuts during Chinese New Year because of this belief in the rhyme but Groundnuts, as according to old wives tales, is the primary culprit towards the dwindling of our Chinese population because it suppresses the male libido. Perhaps. Since peanut butter is very much paired to Elvis, and his underperformance as stated in Pricilla’s memoir. Anyway it’s just a tale. Nothing serious.
“Mai Khiam Kuay Ni” is a Hokkien saying uttered before Chinese New Year. Translated, it means “don’t defer your debts till the next year”. Though this has no real life connotation as most big companies does owe, it grew into a widespread belief somehow rooted into the community. But no doubt it has its goodness. It’s good practice not to be a lousy paymaster because everyone during the festive season needs cash to prepare for the yearly ritual and celebration hence the practice of giving bonuses a week before Chinese New Year. Just like problems that doesn’t get solved, it will slowly pile up into one big unsolvable package. Below is the image of God of Wealth a deity if placed in your home will ensure prosperity in your household.
“The Peranakans weren’t Chinese immigrants who adopted the culture of the Malay archipelago. The word “adopted” as opposed to “adapt” is similar but not the same. It was more of an intercultural amalgamation at a time which saw different communities living together happily which resulted in the assimilation of local lingua into their colloquial and vice versa but of course there are amongst them, intermarriages, which saw Malay maidens being welcomed into the Chinese household. The Peranakans were and is truly Chinese whom at that time are pseudo-Buddhist hence their Confucian and Taoist values, rites, beliefs and practices. Cuisine is purely Chinese but a little experimentation with local spices and adaptation of cooking styles of other inhabitants led to newer recipes considered distinctive to the Peranakans. The comparison of taste from different curries will tell you. However, the many claims by die hard peranakans with regards to recipes such as Jew hu char, bali juak, kiam chye ark and curry kapitan has no basis simply because they were truly Hokkien and Hainanese dishes and not as claimed by these pseudo Peranakans. Most of these recipes were and is still found on the altar and offering tables of the Hokkien community during cultural and divine festivities which were by and large the single largest grouping ever to span the Straits Settlements thence comprising Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Cocos Keeling Islands and Dindings in Perak. Marital, birth and funerary rites were strictly pseudo-Buddhism celebrated in compliance to the Chinese calendar. The Peranakan’s ostentatious taste of finery, garnitures, crockery, embroidery, clothing and furniture are mostly commissioned from countries within and beyond the Malay archipelago, the most obvious being namwood furnitures from China and Czechoslovakian designed coffee shop chairs and enameled tiffin carriers. However it must be noted that highly skilled local craftsmen of Shanghainese origin were also producing pseudo-Victorian era furnitures and architectural motifs to cater to the taste of their English-speaking ponytailed clienteles. These often comprises sideboards, roofing gables and umbrella stands and they usually spot marble tops, claw feet and barley twist balustrades. The habit of chewing tobacco and betel nut is not Malay but archipelagic as observed from the designs of the sireh cutter which were folkloric to the Hindus. Peranakans has their own perkakas. The habit of wearing Baju panjangs and kebayas were a fashion statement of that time. However it should be noted that the keronsang that adorns the blouse differ in taste and make and so are the appliqués .
“All Peranakans are Straits Chinese but not all Straits Chinese are Peranakans.
To be labelled a Chinese Peranakan (also known as Baba Nyonya), one needs to be of Chinese/Malay parentage as a result of intermarriages between Chinese towkays of that era with local ladies without so much of religious restrictions and as a result, these local ladies adapted themselves to the Chinese way of living, learning their husbands customary culture from the matriarch (her mom or grandmom in law), whilst raising her own family, thus cross pollinating her own cultures in whenever the need suits them, whilst her husband works or took care of matters outside the home. As a result, a new lifestyle bloomed, alongside a strangely mixed lingo of usually Hokkien and Malay words (Hokkien was a widely accepted dialect amongst the Chinese), a culture identified with its unique food recipes, and a preference for ostentatious taste in fashion and lifestyle; most certainly an adaptation borrowed from friends and neighbors of different cultures also rooted in the Straits (Burmese, Thai, Laotian, Indian, Ceylonese wherever) which found acceptability with these Straits Chinese, and thus became fashionable. The Straits Settlements is a British colony comprising mainly of Penang, Malacca and Singapore and to a lesser extent the Cocos Keeling islands, Christmas Island, Dindings, Pulau Pangkor and some smaller islands in Perak and that of Labuan. That is the spread of the British trading influence then, and how the Chinese within the S.S frequently addressed themselves as the ‘Straits Chinese’ community. To be a true blue Straits Chinese, one needs to be a local Chinese born during the British administration of the Straits Settlements from 1826-1946.
This explains why some Chinese families who claims to be Straits Chinese, often wondered why they do not have Malay dna in their ancestry lineage. And of how everyday recipes very commonly found in the Straits Chinese homes have Malay sounding names, especially those imbued with local spices, though some of these recipes are in today’s context, non halal.
One can identify a Chinese Peranakan with their spoken patois, very unlike the Hokkien or Malay as how it is spoken today. And generally these Chinese Peranakans are darker skinned, and possesses sharper features. I had the opportunity to interact and acquaint myself with genuine Peranakan friends whose ascendants were distinguished personalities from the government fraternity living in then Emerald Hill. They are Western educated which explains how many of them after years abroad have adopted the Western religion unlike the many local Straits Born Chinese whom were and still is mostly, Buddhist or Taoist.
I remembered those days as a boy, we were taught to address Chinese damsels and lads in strict colloquial standards. We called them ‘Ah Nya’ and ‘Ah Bah’. Though I do not have Malay lineage, I often wondered why my grandparents and great grandparents were all heavily bedecked in straits influenced jewelry from kerongsangs to silver belts down to the kebayas, baju panjangs and those heavily embroidered slippers. But I understand them now. They were fashionable in those days.
Btw that’s how antique I myself is. And no, I’m no Baba even though that was the form of address given not only to me but to other lads as well.”
What’s nice about living in the 70’s can’t be replicated today. Like banging the tv to make good a bad reception and sneak hiding oneself when an unwelcome visitor knocks on your door. I particularly missed cars of yesteryears cos they come without air cond allowing the wind to shape my hairstyle and the rain making its way into the car interior from the slit left open on the side windows. Anyone ever experience making funny gargling sounds in front of table fans? The best part is those days we are all telepathic. We can predict who calls when the phone rings and request the one answering the call to tell the caller we are not around..
If we care to look around, there is too much excess of everything. Especially those ostentatious hip cafes crowding the streets with chalkboard menus, coffee makers, cemented flooring, fungied walls, latte art, good words being chosen as names for these so called hip restaurants and motels that don’t do justice to the name, ill mannered waiters that do not speak English, standing there looking suave but does not know what’s inside the menu nor the art of waiting. If I maybe allowed to, I wish for more localized food instead of spaghetti, salads, watery soups and hot buns. As if that is our culture. Lol my list is long…
I grew up with 3 Khaw Sia’s orchid paintings hanging in my home. I remembered
sticking my nose as close to the painting as any kid would just to explore the
magnification with my eyes leaving the tip of my nose imprinted on the glaze. I
was having fun. It wasn’t the colors he uses, or how he paints the leaves and
dewdrops that I was interested in. I was like any child would at that tender age,
merely exploring. But because I was living with it, it was like second nature to
my skin. Because of that, I remembered very well the paper he uses because it
has a peculiar texture on it. Nowadays one could hardly stumble upon this type
of paper he uses anymore but in my younger years, most kids have fun with it.
And it is quite blotty.
How did i learn to like art? Not many has this privilege but I practically grew
up with a Xu Beihong over my head when I was younger. It was a scroll. My
dad was an avid collector. Antiques included and he draws and there was this
principal in his ex school that always gave him alot of Chinese paintings cos
my dad was chairman of that school. Don’t ask me what happened to that Xu
Beihong cos I don’t know. Both my parents had passed on.
Overseas Chinese left their motherland at a tender age and through sheer hard work and good foresight, many astute businessmen found fortune and eventually became well-known philanthropists. Apart from contributing to society, these visionaries pamper themselves with homes large enough to fit a few generations of “extended family” leaving their wealth to be managed by trust funds. As a result, younger generations today still continue to enjoy the fruits of their efforts with children and grandchildren being sent overseas to further their studies and eventually migrate~ leaving these homes to the care of their faithful caretakers. Many of these homes were today rented out, leased or sold to commercial concerns as well as educational institutions because it is no longer cheap to maintain houses like this. One such house (as shown in pic) is currently leased to Kentucky Fried Chicken, an American fast food corporation who had tapped into the Penang market since the seventies. Picture taken at Larut Rd, Penang.
Built on top of a hill in the 1800′s, St Anne’s chapel amasses a yearly pilgrimage of more than a 100,000 on its feast day though it has but a seating capacity of only 300 at any given time. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is the legendary sighting of her apparition above the hill behind this chapel and the widespread accounts of her healing power and blessings she freely give to all who revere and believe in her. In short, she answers prayers. Many transformations has occurred on church grounds eversince and today it is a sprawling sanctuary that boasts a new church with a seating capacity of 1500- possibly the largest in this region. But this grand old lady has been kept unperturbed. This is an uncommon side view of the old chapel with its steeple as seen from the new church. The statue of the resurrection of Jesus is but a new addition. Pictures taken at St Anne’s Sanctuary, Bukit Mertajam, Province Wellesley, Penang.
Considered the mother of all desserts, ‘Bombe Alaska’, an ice-cream cake covered with an igloo of meringue emerging from an oven found its way into the hearts of Penangites through Hainan Cookboys. Hainanese were seamen from China but locally, they became favored cooks of our colonial masters because of their skill in conjuring up many western recipes with a peculiar twist and taste of its own, the result of having to imagine the descriptions of their bosses who speaks in a language they could hardly understand. When the British ceded control of then Malaya, many of these Hainan Cook Boys as they were called became chefs of their own restaurants serving delectable delicacies they use to serve their masters with like Choon Pneah, Asam Heh, Roti Babi, Barsteaks and Macaroni Pie to name but a few but as all popular recipes would, their own style of Bombe Alaska became one of the first that faded into oblivion until a revival of interest came right after Georgetown was accorded a UNESCO Heritage status. Today, some restaurants are competing for customers serving their own concoction of Bombe Alaska as a recipe proud of its origin. The fact is, it is a real show stopper to see it being served flambed and every time it emerges from the kitchen, it never fail to garner curious onlookers. Little did anyone know that this recipe was first whipped up to commemorate the United States purchase of Alaska in 1867. Picture taken at Yeng Keng Hotel, Chulia Street, Penang.
Despite the long wait, locals has a quaint attachment to traditional Chinese masseurs rather than those physiotherapists found in hospitals whenever they experience discomforts and pains in their joints. From whence thee treatment came about is anybody’s guess but their endeavor in providing comfort and relief to those in agony is a testimony to their immense popularity. Here, a sitting customer patiently anticipates his turn outside the treatment room where the ‘sinseh’ stations himself while a young disciple gets his relief playing games on a handheld gadget. Picture taken at Jln Samak, Off Federal Cinema, Penang.
The ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ happens annually during the Seventh month of the Chinese calendar. During this period, traders and residents from the same street or community would collectively raise funds to organize a feast complete with entertainment in the form of traditional puppet or opera shows or the modern version called ‘Ko Tai’ (a stage performance) to appease ‘Tai Su Yeah’ (God of Hades pictured above) who is supposedly the deity who protects mortals and these wandering spirits, whom were released from the underworld to roam about for one full month.
There is a marked difference between ancestor worshipping that happens during ‘Cheng Beng’ (All Souls Day) as compared to the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is a ritual to appease all ghosts, be they young or old, in the hope that these ‘lost souls’, some of whom are out to seek vengeance, will not disturb them. And especially to those termed ‘wandering spirits’. Spirits of whom were denied proper ritual sent-offs when they passed away, those who died in road accidents and their souls were left to roam, or those whose next of kin and ancestors forgets to pay homage to them, therefore the term ‘Hungry Ghosts’. During this month, younger children and adults are taught to observe the strictest of curfews, latest by midnight, to avoid encountering these spirits. The food served on the altar are meant to appease ‘Tai Su Yeah’ who would relish the offerings first, before the believers can consume them, and the first few ‘premium’ rows in front of the Ko Tai are reserved for these spirits on the fifteen night of the seven month. The paper effigies and ‘Hell’ money are meant for the spirits, and are burnt. Superstitious as it is, the Seventh month is also a taboo period for those wanting to ‘tie-the-knot’, relocate their home or business premise, kick-start a business, career, education etc. as bad luck is said to befall them. Exactly midnight, on the last day of the festival, the ghosts would all return back to their own world, as the Gates of Hell closes. The effigy of Tai Su Yeah is then lit up in a bonfire alongside the rest of the paper effigy. The array of food left on the altar table, after being consumed by the spirits, would be distributed to the needy. Picture taken at Concordia Road, Pulau Tikus, Penang.
Traditional livelihood has over the years given way to rapid development and the fishermen at Northbeach, a small promontory behind Ocean Green Seafood Restaurant has also not been spared. For the very few who thrived however, their sampans still brought on fresh catches as fishmongers and restaurateurs await. Picture taken at Northbeach, Jln Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang.
Many local Chinese revere to “Datuk Kongs”~ spiritual deities of ‘Malay’ descent whom are believed to be overlords of the terrain in which one resides. Because of their roaming presence, most locals finding themselves in unfamiliar places restrain themselves from answering nature’s call, spit or utter anything rude or offensive in that vicinity for fear of offending or incurring the wrath of these spirits which are known to be fierce~ their punishment for offences, reputedly death! The words “Datuk” and “Kong” means the same. It stood for ‘Grandpa’~ the first, as spoken in colloquial Malay and the second, in Hokkien. These spirits have names and are identified by mediums after having undergone a trance and are to be addressed as such but how these Malay spirits came to be revered and honored by the Chinese instead of the Malay’s themselves I believe is due to the arrival of Islam which forbids pagan belief.
In this picture, a young man is seen going about his daily praying ritual of appeasing three ‘Datuks’ whose shrines are believed to be their homes. At the forefront is what he simply called “Datuk Kong”, the one behind, is known by Datuk Nenek (a female spirit) and Datuk Awang. One could see two songkoks (a malay headgear) placed at the right side of the joss stick censer. Picture taken at Jln Nanning, Penang.