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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Sep 28, 2019

Shaik Kadir's Birthplace, a National Monument



The writer is a retired teacher and author of several books

[Source:  The Straits Times, 17 January 2011]

Not many people in their 60s these days have the good fortune of being able to see the building they were born in, so rapid has been the pace of development in Singapore.

I am one of the lucky ones.  My birthplace has not only been left intact by the inexorable march of development.  It is going to be rejuvenated.

I was born 65 years ago, in the Nagore Dargah, an Indian Muslim religious monument, located at the corner of Telok Ayer Street and Boon Tat Street.  My father was the caretaker there from 1940 until he died in 1953 when I was seven years old.  My younger sister and I were born in that building, in the caretaker's room.

Nagore Dargah is a replica of a shrine by the same name in South India, which houses the tomb of 13th-century Islamic preacher Syed Shahul Hamid.  The Singapore monument was built in his honour around 1828 by Chulia Tamil Muslims who migrated to Singapore.  It was gazetted a national monument in 1974.

The monument, with its unique blend of Indian-Arab features and three prominent minarets, has attracted the attention of those who walk past its distinctive facade - but they were unable to see its interior for it was locked most times for many years.

As Muslims become more educated, both secularly and Islamically, beliefs in superstitions and visits to shrines declined.  Islam prohibits the worship of humans, dead or alive, however pious they may have been, and asking for divine favours from the dead.

In my adult life, at least once in two years, I would take a trip to Telok Ayer Street to view the building and reminisce about my childhood days there.  The building became so dilipidated from disuse I feared its days would be numbered.

I was therefore delighted to hear of the community's efforts with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), which takes care of the property, to give the building a new function.  After restoration, the Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre, will open in May, 2011.

Nagore Dargah, once a centre of Indian Muslim activity, is more than a national monument to me.  For me, it holds a lot of personal and family memories.

The rooms in the building and the streets around it were my play area.  Telok Ayer Street would become a hive of activity in the evening.  Chinese medicine men came, clashing cymbals to explain their wares.  Elderly people listened intently to story-tellers spinning yarns of faraway provinces of China.

The food boy would make his rounds from Telok Ayer Street to Boon Tat Street soliciting home deliveries with his bamboo knockers , wounding tik-tok, tik-tok, tik-tok till somebody called him for orders.

Boon Tat Street too would come alive.  Here, roadside push-carts sold food.  While people ate, Chinese instrumental songs, often accompanied by the soulful sound of the erhu, blared from the Chinese association building in nearby Amoy Street.

Kreta Ayer was a Chinese area that also had a stron Indian presence.  There were many Indian "hole-in-the-wall" shops in this area, selling anything from ciagarettes to sweets and toiletries.

One was just across the road from my home, on the side wall of the coffee shop.  Once, the owner came to my father to talk about sponsoring food for the up-coming Kandhuri Urs or maulud, the 14-day annual religious celebration.

The celebration would begin after sunset with a flag-raising ceremony.  Flags would be raised on several masts erected from the open-air floor of the building against its lace-like upper walls.

During these two weeks, visitors, mostly South-Indian Muslims, would come to offer thanksgiving prayers and doa (blessing) to Syd Shahul Hamid.

On the 10th night, more people would come to keep vigil till dawn.  Musicians, sitting cross-legged on the matted floor, kept them awake with Tamil Islamic songs.

After the 14th evening of the celebration, the flags would be lowered and Nagore Dargah would be left bereft of visitors for the rest of the year, except for occasional visitor on Thursday nights.

Like many others in the Indian Muslim community, I am delighted that such a beautiful building will come to life again and hope its visitors will spend time learning about the history and contributions of the Singapore Indian Muslim community.

Please check out Shaik Kadir's blog here .

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Sep 21, 2019

Happily Ever After For Queenstown Library

It will continue to serve the community and new generation of readers

By Joanna Seow
[Source:  The Straits Times, 25 July 2014]

Standing two storeys tall, the grey building on Margaret Drive looks old-fashioned with its bow-tie motif and lattice facade.

But this venerable keeper of fairytales and stories of faraway lands has been ahead of times.

Queenstown Public Library - the oldest public library still standing in Singapore - became the first branch to be fully air-conditioned in 1978 and the first to computerise its loan system in 1987.

It also opened the first children's corner and was the first to offer free movie screenings.

Now, the 44-year-old library - which became the country's oldest after the original National Library building at Stamford Road was torn down - will be the first of 26 under the National Library Board (NLB) to be preserved.

The 40th Anniversary of Queenstown Branch Library blog here .
Last month, it was gazetted for conservation under the Urban Redvelopment Authority's Master Plan 2014, as part of the medium-term term physical development of Singapore.

"I'm happy it will still be here.  It ties us to our memories, and that's the purpose of conserving a building," said retired Republic of Singapore Air Force officer Tommy Tan, 51, who lived in nearby Margaret Close as a boy.

Queenstown itself is no stranger to firsts.  It was the nation's first satellite town - nearly 20,000 housing units were built there from 1952 to 1968.

A modern town centre developed in the 1960s and 1970s, across from the library building.  The nation's first neighbourhood shopping centre and sports complex sprang up there.

And in 1970, Queenstown's new branch library was opened by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, kicking off a movement to connect heartlanders to reading.

Built at a cost of $595,000, it lent out more than 293,000 books and registered 12,600 users in its first year.  The figures more than doubled over the first five years.

In the library's heyday, queues for borrowing and returning books snaked out the front door, and Saturday visitors had to squeeze in, said Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, a former NLB director of reading initiatives and a Queenstown librarian from 1980 to 1982.

Library manager Michelle Kwok (left) with Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, a Queenstown librarian from 1980 to 1982.

Children loved the storytelling sessions and cosy corner created by Mrs Kiang-Koh, 63, who pestered a carpet firm for several months until it donated a carpet.

"We would get children who didn't enjoy reading to attend programmes like magic shows and then introduce books related to their hobbies," she said.

The building was at the centre of a hive of activity, with a bowling centre, cinemas and hawker food just a short walk away.

"We would say "meet at the library' and decide what to do after that," said Mr Tan, who now visits it once a month with his wife and daughter, aged four.

But time has hushed the neighbourhood.  The Cinema and Bowling Centre closed in 1999, though the building still stands.  Next to the library, the former Queenstown Polyclinic and Dental Clinic is now a dormitory for workers.

Gone are the queues, thanks to automated loan machines.

Sunlight steaming in through giant glass windows illumininates books left open by children visiting with their parents or students seeking a quiet refuge.

Esther Lee, 11, cut a serene figure as she pored over work set by her mother, Mrs Hazel Lee, 36, who home-schools Esther and her three younger siblings.

"We get books related to the topic Mum is teaching," said Esther, who usually reads seven books a week.  "I like the library as it's much quieter than other places."

Civil servant L.P. Lim, 35, who lives nearby, visited the library as a girl and still loves it.  She said: "As the front doors slide open, I often feel a tingle of happiness - it's like being welcomed to a place where stories of Enid Blyton's treetop fairyland still exist."

Visitors appreciate the peaceful atmostphere, as shopping mall libraries tend to be more crowded.

"Other libraries are more central.  This feels more exclusive," said retiree Koh Hock Chong, 63, who reads Chinese magazines there several times a week.

Not content to be a wallflower, the library has turned to programmes such as movie screenings to draw in more readers, said manager Michelle Kwok.  It also holds gardening talks that tie in with its community garden, which is its special feature.

And the area could soon get livelier with the redevelopment of the nearby Tanglin Halt area.  Some residents will move to five new housing projects, two of which are in front of the library.

Many visitors to the library go for their children's sake.  Housewife Jyothi Abburu, 32, who was there recently with her two daughters and mother-in-law, said:  "My younger girl especially likes the storytelling sessions."

Like the building itself, the storytelling tradition has stood the test of time.  Mrs Kiang-Koh often runs into visitors who enjoyed storytime at the library as children.

"I'm very happy I'm around to see the next generation," she said.  "Now, they bring their mothers and their own kids to the library."

Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, the Reading Ambassador .

Sep 5, 2019

The Moon Festival

Stall at Smith Street in Chinatown selling moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Cake Festival. The Chinese festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month, the night at which the moon is believed to be the roundest and brightest. The Mid-Autumn Festival dates back to the reign of Emperor Tai Tsung of the Sung Dynasty (AD 976-995), but it was only in the Ts'ing period when China was under Manchurian rule (1644-1911) that moon cakes were consumed in celebration. Shaped like the moon, the sweet pastry is traditionally filled with a few types of paste -- lotus, black-bean, yellow-bean, and "golden trotter" (mixture of nuts and sweetened paste of orange peel and ham) -- and often includes a preserved duck's egg yolk. During the festive season, moon cakes are given as gifts and put at the altar as offerings to deities, ancestors and the moon.  Date:  12/09/1983.

The Moon Festival, a tradition that is still going strong in Singapore.

Traditions die hard, and the Eighth Moon Festival - also known as the Mid-Autumn or Moon-cake Festival - is no different.

Chinese in Singapore still continue to celebrate the event, one of the most colourful in the Chinese calendar, although the majority do not really understand its significance, especially among the younger generation.

It climaxed two weeks of activities which saw thousands of dollars worth of moon-cakes bought, exchanged and consumed.

Chinatown, just across the People's Park Complex, is usually the centre of activity before the festival.  Here shops and roadside stalls are well-stocked with traditional items like pomeloes, tea leaves and dust, and, of course, moon-cakes in different variety.

However, with the threat of urban renewal, this area is slowly losing its popularity as THE place for festival shopping.

Ask any of the Chinatown stall-holders and he will readily tell you that business has not been as good as in the previous years.

One of the reasons is that the younger generation are not so keen in celebrating the festival.

"Unlike the older people, the younger ones will only buy a few pieces of moon-cake for the family and one or two lanterns for their children," said one of the shop-keepers who has been years in the business.

"This is bad because if this trend continues, a time will come when no one will celebrate the festival."

There are however, clubs here whch still celebrate the occasion quite elaborately.  The China Society, for instance, holds and annual Mooncake Party for its members and guests, and among its activities are cultural shows and talks on the festival.

For the older folk, festival day means time for exchange of gifts among friends and relatives with mooncakes and caged "piglets" topping the lsit.

It is also time to pray to the Moon Goddess - despite the American intrusion on the planet.

Although no one can say for certain how long this tradition will last in Singapore, most people agree that the festival helps to bring on added touch of colour to the lives of the people here.

[Source:  New Nation, 23 September 1972.  By Jenny Lee].

Madam Lan Lee Ying and her two-year-old granddaughter Annabell Song, in Chinatown to buy lanterns.  Tonight is the celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival which is also known as the lantern or mooncake festival.  Picture by Lau Fook Kong.

The lady in the moon

By Diane Lim [Source:  The Straits Times, 27 September 1987].

When the moon rises high in the sky on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, round and bright as a big lantern, little ones might well wonder about the dim shapes they see on its surface.

If they won't be satisfied with the standard modern explanation that these are shadows made by the mountains and craters on the moon, perhaps the traditional myths may go sown better with mooncakes and Chinese tea.

The central figure in the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations is Chang E, the Lady in the Moon.  Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) mythologies say that she was the beautiful wife of Hou Yi, a skilful archer who saved the earth from drought during the Xia dynasty (circa 2,000 BC) by shooting nine suns from the sky, leaving one we see today.

There are several different accounts of how Chang E got in the moon.  In the most commonly-told version, Hou Yi was rewarded for his feat by being made ruler of the people he had saved.

Unfortuantely, he proved to be tyrannical.  He sent emissaries to Xi Wang Mu, Queen of the Western Paradise, to procure an elixir of immortality.

Chang E foresaw unending misery for her husband's subjects should he become immortal.  So, filled with pity and concern for them, she drank the elixir and fled to the moon to escape Hou Yi's wrath.

Her heroic sacrifice is remembered by those who pray to her as the Goddess of the Moon and symbol of beauty, wisdom and virtue.

In another version of the story, the 10 suns in the sky were the sons of Jade Emperor, supreme ruler of the heavens.  He had instructed them to take turns shining in the sky so as to warm the earth, but they had disobediently appeared together, causing drought and destruction.

Hou Yi was a heavenly emissary sent to reason with them.  Failing to persuade them with words, he shot down all but one.  Angered by this, the Jade Emperor barred Hou Yi and his fairy wife Chang E, who had come to earth with him, from returning to heaven.

Chang E was unhappy with her life among mortals and nagged Hou Yi to find a way for them to regain immortality.  After many difficulties, Hou Yi obtained a medicine from Xi Yang Mu, who gave him enough of it for two.

He returned to Chang E rejoicing and told her about it, but hid it in the roof of the house when he went out again.  Chang E discovered the medicine in his absence.  She had just taken it down when she heared Hou Yi returning.

In confusion, she swallowed it all.  She started to feel lighter and lighter and began to float upwards as her husband watched helplessly.  Finally, she reached the moon, unable to go further, since she was still not permitted to enter heaven.

On a clear night, look at the moon, especially when it is full.  The shadows on the moon may also recall the silhouette of a rabbit.

One story about it goes thus:  A fox, a monkey and a rabbit lived together harmoniously, sharing their food and work.  One day, a holy man came begging for food and shelter.  The three animals welcomed him into their cave.  The fox brought him a carp, and the monkey gave him freshly picked fruit.

Full of sadness that it had nothing better to offer, the rabbit jumped into the fire and roasted itself to provide meat for the old man.

As it turned out, the honly man was the Lord Buddha in disguise and, to reward the rabbit's generosity, he placed its half-burnt carcass on the moon to shine as an example for all eternity....

And what about the mooncakes, their golden brown recalling the gleam of the harvest moon?

It is said that Zhu Yuan Zhang overthrew the Yuan dynasty (1279 AD - 1368 AD) and freed the Chinese from Mongol domination with their help.  On the advice of his lieutenant, Liu Bo Wen, mooncakes were circulated among the people as the festival approached.

Celebrating the festival provided an excuse for Chinese families to gather, as the Mongol soldiers otherwise strictly controlled their movements.

Since ownership of sharp weapons was restricted and 10 families had to share one knife, the need to cut the mooncakes ensured that the people would have arms at the ready when they received the call to rise against the Mongols - by means of notes hidden in the mooncakes.

The rebellion was successful, and resulted in the founding of the Ming dynasty (1369-1644).

Sadly, the authenticity of this well-know story is disputed.  The Mid-Autumn Festival was indeed celebrated from the Song dynasty (AD960-1279) onwards, but mooncakes were not mentioned as being part of the festival until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), according to C.S. Wong, the late Penang-based expert on Chinese matters.

However, Tan Sri Lee is of the view that the mooncakes do have a long history and may well have existed at the time of the anti-Mongol revolt.

Information published by the Hong Kong Tourist Association supports what Tan Sri Lee said, claiming that mooncakes existed as far back as the Tang dynasty, though their origin is unknown.

    Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Chinatown

Sales of mooncakes at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Sales of lanterns at Chinatown in the 1950s.

Celebration of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festivals in 2003

President SR Nathan, Guest of Honour for official opening and light-up ceremony of the Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival at New Bridge Road on 31 August, 2003.

My personal Chinatown Mid-Autumn Blogs

In 2013, I had the pleasure and privilege to share my blog and personal memories of Chinatown Mid-Autumn Festival in 2013 here .

Please watch the YouTube video here .

The still photos captured from the Mediacorp Channel 8 screened on Frontline on 20 September, 2013 below: