Back in 1991 we’d been on holiday in Bali and flew back via Singapore where we were staying for a few days. Having been to Singapore before, we had nothing specific planned and decided to play things by ear. We arrived at Singapore airport and I started picking up some tourist leaflets – my OH has now come to realise this is often not a good idea.
I picked one up for the wonderfully titled Nine Emperor Gods Festival and made use of our journey time to the hotel to read it.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. On this night, the priest, invokes the spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods to descend into a sacred urn. It is believed that when the sacred ashes in the urn, start to burn brightly, then the gods have arrived. This urn is then taken to the temple and kept out of public view.
Throughout the nine days, the temples involved exude a carnival like atmosphere, with feasting, prayers and wayangs (Chinese opera). The mediums in the temples can usually be relied upon to perform feats including inserting metal spikes through the skin (not a sight for the faint hearted) and firewalking. The festival ends on the evening of the ninth day with a farewell procession which draws scores of devotees wishing to send the deities back home in style. This involves the removal of the sacred urn from the temple into a sedan chair. This chair is then taken down to the river and the flaming urn is placed on a small boat. Once the boat starts to move this indicates the gods have departed.
As luck would have it, we’d arrived just in time (to my OH’s less than obvious delight) because that evening was the last night, and the leaflet gave details of some of the grandest celebrations being held at the Kiu Ong Yiah Temple. The leaflet helpfully provided a map and bus service numbers. Less helpful I will admit, was the observation noting ‘that map is not drawn to scale’. However, not deterred I was determined to go, as this might be a once in a lifetime chance, OH meanwhile was more keen on relaxing and having an early night. Needless to say, I won this round.
Once unpacked and changed we caught a bus to Orchard road where we’d find the aforementioned buses to take us to the temple. This we duly did, only this time it was me that was less than happy. Singapore has long been lauded for its cleanliness (a direct result of its 1968 Keep Singapore Clean Campaign) and, having some of the best public services in the world. Our bus might have missed that directive, or more correctly, the cockroach that kept me company all the way to the temple definitely had. But we arrived at the right place and in one piece so all was well.
I say well, what I mean was, we’d arrived at the right place, but hadn’t got a clue what was happening as we couldn’t see a thing. As we appeared to be the only westerners in the crowd, we also stuck out like a sore thumb. The place was a seething mass of people, all waving huge joss sticks which added to the atmosphere, if not the ability to see.
OH was soon complaining that the smoke was making his eyes water and what exactly were we supposed to looking at. We were supposed to be looking for the sedan chair, but that was nowhere in sight.
So I suggested we waited (not what he wanted to hear) as I was sure we’d see it soon, after all, there were all these other people waiting too. If we’d missed it, they’d be long gone. It was a long wait. Once the shaking, sedan chair did arrive amidst gongs and clashing symbols it was clear why, it’s carriers had adopted a 3 steps forward, 2 steps back approach with a minute of shaking in between.
So having seen it, OH was ready for the off and not looking too impressed when I said I wanted to follow it to the river. What followed, can only be described as a mini marital. OH pointing out we didn’t know where the river was or more importantly how to get back from it. As it was, we didn’t know when the buses stopped running and we’d already been here for a good hour or so. All valid points, but I don’t like not seeing things through to the end (my OH calls it being a stubborn bugger). By this stage we were clearly giving off vibes that all was not well. Enter A, who approached us to ask if she could help. I explained our dilemma and she assured us it was no problem as she was here with her husband V, and they were going to the river and we could go with them. Before OH could interject I was happily accepting her kind offer. As she went off to let her husband know what was happening, OH went into overdrive. we don’t know who they are, or where we might end up, had I heard of muggings and the white slave trade?Slightly over egging the pudding with that last comment, but I suppose he had a point, However, I consider myself a good judge of character and A had seemed lovely and genuine (no doubt people who had been mugged/kidnapped etc had also thought the same) but what the hell. A came back and introduced us to V.
It transpired that A was from the Philippines and didn’t believe, but her husband V who was Chinese did, so he was here to take part in the festivities. V seemed equally genuine and nice, so after a chat about exactly what was happening and what would happen, they drove us down to the river. It was at this point the note on the leaflet reminding us that the map was not to scale came into play, as it also hadn’t shown the river which was not exactly, just around the corner. Once we arrived at the river we had an admittedly long wait for the sedan chair to amble its way to the waiting crowd. The smoke was as acrid as it had been at the temple and had been added to by the smell of rotting vegetation coming from the river. I spent most of my time trying not to look at my OH as I could feel the vibes he was giving off without actually looking at him.
Eventually, the chair arrived, the urn was removed and the burning embers set on the river. Hurray, I could see OH thinking, we can now go home. A and V had already kindly offered to take us back to our hotel, so he was starting to lighten up a bit, but not for long. Once we were in the car, V suggested we stop off for something to eat on the way. At the time we were both vegetarian and OH hoped to use this as an excuse to avoid this additional delay. That was no problem it transpired, as during the festival, V was vegetarian so we could eat without a problem. As we drove back toward town, I knew my OH wasn’t happy and made a point of letting me know. This was it, we were going to be never heard of again, but taken down town and robbed or worse. But of course we weren’t. We were taken to a delightful local place that served the most amazing veggie dim sum. it was delightful because it was the sort of place we would have been far too intimated to venture into ourselves. It was not frequented by westerners, and we’d never have coped with how to order or what to ask for.
By now my OH had started to appreciate that if we were going to be mugged (or worse) it would have happened by now, they were hardly likely to make sure we were well fed first. So he started to relax and from then on we had a great evening. I should make clear, his ire had been directed at me and not A and V who were as lovely as I’d first thought. When we left the bar, it was with plans to meet V after work the following afternoon as he wanted to show us places we hadn’t visited before. We would then meet up with A when she finished work as OH and I were taking them out for a meal as a thank you for the evening.
So all’s well that ends well and we have never forgotten our night at the festival or the lovely weekend we had with A and V. Sadly we have lost touch over time, but we’ve never forgotten them, and purely for the purposes of anonymity I decided not to print photographs or names. Should a miracle happen and anyone recognise this story from their viewpoint it would be lovely to say hello again.
We’ve not been back since that magical trip, but I do enjoy reading books set in Singa Pura the original Malay name for Singapore, meaning the Lion City.
For anyone interested here’s a reading list composed of books I’ve either read, own or would like to read.
Singapore : a personal reading list
(click on image for non affiliated buying link)
Ping, an American citizen, returns to Singapore after many years and sees a country transformed by prosperity. Gone are the boatmen and hawkers who once lived along the crowded riverside and in their place rise the gleaming towers of the financial district.
Her childhood growing up among the river people had been very different, and leaving her first love Weng, a musician, for America, had been devastating.
Now that she is back in Singapore, can she face her former lover and reveal the secret that has separated them for many years?
As World War II rages, Francine Lawrence and her small daughter, Ruth, wait in the fading splendor of Raffles Hotel in Singapore for Francine’s British husband. But when he is delayed, Francine, half-Chinese and unwelcome there, is forced to begin a terrifying journey. Seeking to escape a world exploding in nightmare, Francine ultimately makes a gut-wrenching decision: to entrust Ruth to strangers in order to save the child’s life. But when the war ends, all traces of Ruth have vanished; years of searching bring only heartbreak.
Three decades later Francine is a formidable businesswoman, pouring all her energies into her companies. Then one day a soft-spoken young woman walks into her New York office on the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. Her name is Sakura, and she hints that she may be Francine’s daughter. What Francine does not know is that beneath Sakura’s calm surface lives the heart of a warrior. Francine cannot begin to imagine the places Sakura has been, the horrors she has endured–or the secret that gives her the strongest motive in the world to lie…
She lived only for pleasure…until war forced her to find courage she did not know she had, and love where she least expected it.
It is 1941, and while Britain is in the grip of war, life in the Far East is one of wealth and privilege. In Singapore Susan Roper, secure in the supremacy of the British Empire, enjoys dancing,clothes and fast cars, tennis and light flirtations with visiting naval officers- her life is devoted solely to pleasure. When she meets an Australian doctor who warns her of the danger that they all face she dismisses him as an ignorant colonial.
Singapore goes on partying, oblivious to the threat of invasion. The British flag will, they believe, protect them from all enemies. But when Japan invades, Susan finds herself in grave danger. She become an ambulance driver and is taken prisoner by the Japanese. Gradually and reluctantly she realises that she has fallen in love with the tough, arrogant and totally unsuitable doctor, but she has to face many hardships and witness terrible events before she can acknowledge the truth.
Inspector Singh is home – and how he wishes he wasn’t. His wife nags him at breakfast and his superiors are whiling away their time by giving him his usual ‘you’re a disgrace to the Force’ lecture. Fortunately for Singh, there is no rest for the wicked when he is called out to the murder of a senior partner at an international law firm, clubbed to death at his desk.
Unfortunately for Singh, there is no shortage of suspects – from the victim’s fellow partners to his wife and ex-wife – or motives, as many of the lawyers have secrets they would kill to protect. And very soon Singh finds himself heading up an investigation that rips apart the fabric of Singapore society and exposes the rotten core beneath. Perhaps coming home wasn’t such a good idea, after all…?
The Trailing Spouse by Jo Furniss (my review here)
Amanda Bonham moved halfway around the world to be with the man she loves. Although expat life in Singapore can be difficult, Edward Bonham is a dream husband and a doting father to his teenage daughter, Josie.
But when their maid dies in an apparent suicide—and Amanda discovers the woman was pregnant and hiding a stash of drugs prescribed to Edward—she can’t help but wonder if her perfect husband has a fatal flaw. And if he can’t resist temptation under their own roof, what does he get up to when he travels?
Camille Kemble also has questions for Edward. Recently returned to Singapore, Camille is determined to resolve a family mystery. Amid a jumble of faded childhood memories, she keeps seeing Edward’s handsome face. And she wants to know why.
For one woman, the search for answers threatens everything she has. For another, it’s the key to all she lost. Both will follow his trail of secrets into the darkness to find the truth.
Harriet and Mae Grafton are twenty-year-old identical twins born from a scandalous affair. They grew up in India slighted by gossip and ostracised from polite society. They had each other and that was enough. But when their wealthy benefactor sends them to Singapore, they meet the mysterious Alex Blake and their relationship fractures with devastating consequences.
Ivy Harcourt is posted to wartime Singapore amid the looming threat of Japanese invasion. Ivy knows the island will be a far cry from war-torn London, but she is totally unprepared for what awaits her: strangers from her grandmother Mae’s past, an unstoppable love affair and a shattering secret that’s been waiting to be uncovered . . .
2003. Singapore. Friendless and fatherless, sixteen-year-old Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, they develop an intense friendship which offers Szu an escape from her mother’s alarming solitariness, and Circe a step closer to the fascinating, unknowable Amisa.
Seventeen years later, Circe is struggling through a divorce in fraught and ever-changing Singapore when a project comes up at work: a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the very project that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance: by memories of the two women she once knew, by guilt, and by a past that threatens her conscience . . .
Told from the perspectives of all three women, Ponti by Sharlene Teo is an exquisite story of friendship and memory spanning decades. Infused with mythology and modernity, with the rich sticky heat of Singapore, it is at once an astounding portrayal of the gaping loneliness of teenagehood, and a vivid exploration of how tragedy can make monsters of us.
For ten-year-old Sylvie Sambuck, Singapore seems a long way from the fighting of the Second World War. However the advancing Japanese army soon leads to a mass evacuation of the island but, as Sylvie’s family begins to board their ship, there is no sign of Sylvie. Somehow, in the confusion, Sylvie finds refuge with her governess, Virginia Chen. But neither Virginia nor her family believe they will escape the Japanese internment camps, where Virginia may have to pay the ultimate price for Sylvie’s survival.
Jack Flowers, saint or sinner, caught a passing bumboat into Singapore and got a job as a water-clerk to a Chinese ship chandler. Now, on the side, he offers girls (indeed ‘anything, anything at all’) to tourists, sailors, residents and expatriates, but he is haunted by his lack of worldly success and his fifty-three years weigh heavily on him. So when he agrees to act as blackmailer for the faintly sinister American, Edwin Shuck, in a plot against a general from Vietnam, he has high, not to mention wild, hopes of triumph.
These are the outrageous confessions of an ingenious con man in the seedy and unforgettable world of expatriates amidst imperial ruins.
‘This is where she sleeps. A cupboard. A bedroom. A windowless box.’
Sisters Dolly and Tala have never felt further from home. In the blistering heat of Singapore, they spend their days enabling ex-pats to have lives they could never afford for themselves.
Even though she has little freedom, Dolly can just about live with her job if it means she’s able to support her beloved young daughter back in the Philippines. One day – if she’s lucky – Dolly may even be able to go back and see her.
Tala, however, just can’t keep her mouth shut about the restrictive, archaic rules maids are forced to abide by on pain of deportation. She risks everything to help her fellow maids, who have struggled to have their voices heard for far too long.
In a world where domestic workers are treated so poorly, The Maid’s Room explores how women can come together to change each other’s lives, and be the architects of their own futures.
Singapore in the 1860s is exotic and yet terrifying for Isabella Saunders, a penniless Englishwoman, alone and vulnerable after her mother’s death. Too pretty to obtain a governess’s job, she accepts an offer from Mr Lee, a Singapore merchant, to teach him English and live with his family.
Two years later Bram Deagan arrives in the country, determined to make his fortune as a trader. Mr Lee sees a way to expand his business connections and persuades Isabella to marry Bram, and she bravely sets sail for a new land and life. But the past casts a long shadow and together they face unexpected dangers. Will they ever be able to achieve their dreams – and find happiness together along the way?
Singapore – a trading post where different lives jostle and mix. It is 1927, and three young people are starting to question whether this inbetween island can ever truly be their home. Mei Lan comes from a famous Chinese dynasty but yearns to free herself from its stifling traditions; ten-year-old Howard seethes at the indignities heaped on his fellow Eurasians by the colonial British; Raj, fresh off the boat from India, wants only to work hard and become a successful businessman. As the years pass, and the Second World War sweeps through the east, with the Japanese occupying Singapore, the three are thrown together in unexpected ways, and tested to breaking point.
A Yellow House by Karien Van Ditzhuijzen
Ten-year-old Singaporean Maya is lonely: her grandmother is dead, her mother is focused on her career and her best friend has become a bully. When Aunty M, a domestic worker from Indonesia, joins the family to take care of Maya and her baby sister, Maya is ready to hate her. Aunty M smiles a lot, but says little. However, after Aunty M rescues a fellow maid living in the same building and beaten by her employer, Maya discovers a side of Singapore hitherto unknown to her. She and Aunty M grow closer as they meet more and more women in need. What will happen when Mama finds out about Maya and Aunty M s growing involvement with the aunties? Will Maya lose Aunty M too? After all, Mama did say she hates busybodies … This poignant coming-of-age story, told in the voice of inquisitive Maya, explores the plight of migrant domestic workers in Singapore and the relationships they form with the families they work for.
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Agnes Hussein, descendant of the last sultan of Singapore and the last surviving member of her immediate family, has grown up among her eccentric relatives in the crumbling Kampong Glam palace, a once-opulent relic given to her family in exchange for handing over Singapore to the British.
Now Agnes is seventeen and her family has fallen into genteel poverty, surviving on her grandfather’s pension and the meager income they receive from a varied cast of boarders. As outside forces conspire to steal the palace out from under them, Agnes struggles to save her family and finds bravery, love, and loyalty in the most unexpected places. The Moonlight Palace is a coming-of-age tale rich with historical detail and unforgettable characters set against the backdrop of dazzling 1920s Singapore.
Opulence. Invasion. Terror. And forbidden passion in 1930s Singapore.
‘They were the golden days, when Singapore was as rich as its climate was steamy, its future as assured as it was busy. And those days were made even better when, as was inevitable, I fell in love with the Chinese beauty of Julie Soong and, against all unwritten canons of Singapore life, we became lovers.’
Singapore just before the Japanese invasion in the Second World War: the Blackett family’s prosperous world of tennis parties, cocktails and deferential servants seems unchanging. But it is poised on the edge of the abyss: This is the eve of the Fall of Singapore and, as we know, of much else besides.
Not only the Blacketts, their friends and enemies, but many individuals are caught up in the events. Singapore at this historical watershed has never been so faithfully and passionately recreated.
The Red Thread by Dawn Farnham
Set against the backdrop of 1830s Singapore where piracy, crime, triads, and tigers are commonplace, this historical romance follows the struggle of two lovers: Zhen, a Chinese coolie and triad member, and Charlotte, an 18-year-old Scots woman and sister of Singapore’s Head of Police. Two cultures bound together by the invisible threads of fate yet separated by cultural diversity.
A rich, multi-generational saga, set in Singapore and New Zealand. The mysterious disappearance of a young child sets in motion a series of events that will haunt future generations of the family.
Singapore in the 1970s. A handsome army officer falls in love with the young daughter of his captain. Although she is determined to become a ballerina, Fleur falls deeply for David and abandons her aspirations to become an army wife and mother. After their first blissfully happy years together, tragedy strikes and Fleur is left widowed with her young twin daughters, Nikki and Saffie. Grief-stricken, she prepares to take her daughters back to England – and then one of them mysteriously vanishes, without a trace.
New Zealand, present day. Nikki Montrose, pregnant, is still haunted by the disappearance of her twin sister. Unable to reconcile with her mother, the ghosts of the past haunt her dreams. Fleur’s impending visit forces her to confront her fears. Then when her mother goes missing en route, Nikki must journey to Singapore and attempt a reconciliation. But what they discover back in Port Dickson will send shockwaves through the entire family.
‘It’s time to stop fighting, and go home’
Those were the words that finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her East London flat in the middle of breakfast, wearing flimsy sandals on a brisk Spring day, carrying nothing more substantial than a handbag, and keep on walking. Leaving behind her marriage to Patrick, her adoring husband of less than a year, she gets on a plane to Singapore, running back home to the city and the old life she had run away from in the first place. And there she finds her childhood friend and former lover, Jazz, troubled by the pleas of the dying father he refuses to forgive, who has never stopped waiting for her to return.
After years spent fleeing the ghosts of her past – the life that she and Jazz tried and failed to make together, the terrible revelation that tore their relationship apart, and the troubling psychological diagnosis she would rather forget – Aruna is about to discover that running away is easy. It is coming home – making peace with herself, Jazz and those they have loved – that is hard.
By the time of his death, Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was the founder of Singapore and Governor of Java, having left school in his early teens to become a clerk for the British East India Company. Charismatic and daring, Raffles forged an extraordinary path for himself in South East Asia – refusing to be satisfied with the trading posts available to the British, he defied Dutch governors and wrangled with warring local rulers to establish what is now a world city.
An ardent linguist and zoologist, Raffles spoke fluent Malay and found time to write The History of Java, as well as naming several species of flora and fauna he discovered on his travels. He founded London Zoo and promoted the study of Malay alongside European languages in Southeast Asia.
Raffles remains a controversial figure – a utopian imperialist, disobedient employee and knight of the realm who died deeply in debt, predeceased by all but one of his children. He built racial segregation into his urban planning, but was also a staunch abolitionist. Renowned biographer Victoria Glendinning charts Raffles’ prodigious rise in this new edition, specially updated for the bicentenary of the foundation of Singapore in 1819. His life was short, complicated and shot through with tragedy, but Raffles’ fame lives on.
Castles in the Air by Alison & Molly Ripley Cubitt (my review here)
An eight-year-old child witnesses her mother’s secret and knows that from that moment life will never be the same.
After Molly, her mother dies, Alison uses her legacy to make a film about Molly’s relationship with a man she had known since she was a teenager. What hold did this man have over her mother? And what other secrets was her mother hiding?
Castles in the Air follows the life of Molly Ripley through the eyes of her daughter Alison. From Molly’s childhood in colonial Hong Kong and Malaya; wartime adventures as a rookie office girl in the far east outpost of Bletchley Park then as a young nurse in the city; tangled romance and marriage to her challenging middle-age when demons from the past seem set to overwhelm her.
The writer in Alison can’t stop until she reveals the story of Molly’s past.
But as a daughter, does she have the courage to face up to the uncomfortable truths of Molly’s seemingly ordinary life?
As she unravels the private self that Molly kept secret, Alison realises that she is trying to find herself through her mother’s story. By trying to make sense of the past, can she move on with her future?
Memories of Chinatown by
Memories of Chinatown is a Singapore classic and is now republished with a new visual interpretation by watercolour artist Graham Byfield. Both a memoir and a narrative guide to the vibrant spirit of a bygone Singapore, it is written by much loved ‘walking treasure’ and heritage tour pioneer Geraldene Lowe-Ismail. Blessed with a rich trove of stories and personal knowledge stretching over 50 years, Geraldene delivers a unique insight into the glory and past of one of Southeast Asia’s truly original Chinatowns. For anyone interested in heritage architecture and culture, this is a fascinating read.