Folding paper ingots forbidden by some religions

From ‘Religion getting in the way of filial piety’, 22 March 2014, Voices, Today

(Evelyn Tan): My husband’s grandmother died recently at the age of 91. The last couple of years were difficult as she was bedridden and fading day by day….According to her wishes, the funeral arrangements followed Taoist tradition. This involved elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send her on a comfortable journey to the afterlife. With that many offspring, one would have expected all hands on deck.

What materialised seemed to be a reflection of changing times and narrow beliefs. Several of her offspring have adopted other religions and refused to participate in any of the Taoist ceremonies, including the folding of paper ingots. I find this a strange phenomenon. Surely, what matters must be the wishes of the deceased, rather than the beliefs of the living?

As more Singaporeans become well-travelled, no one has qualms about visiting religious landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan. In fact, many plan to visit these landmarks. As we progress in this society, we must remain tolerant of all beliefs.

Using religion as an excuse to distance oneself from religious ceremonies for a loved one seems to be a practice of double standards and the start of an intolerant approach.

Although the writer did not specify what religion her uncooperative relatives belonged to, it’s likely to be Christianity,  in which a related funeral custom, the handling of joss sticks, is frowned upon by some practitioners.  Some refuse to even touch a bag of it as if it were poison. According to a certain pastor ‘Steven Wong’, holding joss sticks is a symbol of ancestral worship, and God explicitly forbids ‘a relationship with the spirits of the dead (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). He goes so far to call the practice  ‘demonic and occultic’, and makes you a bad, bad Christian.

Joss sticks aside, burning ‘hell money’ is also discouraged, for its purpose is to ‘bribe’ the departing spirits and keep them from descending into our realm and peek at us from behind the closet. Tough luck for dead Granny if her only Christian child refuses to send a paper iPad up to her in heaven, which makes her more likely to come down and haunt your dreams. A baptised ‘child of God’ is also prohibited from kneeling before a corpse, because it’s an act of demonic supplication. All this coming from a faith where you ‘eat’ the body and ‘drink’ the blood of Jesus Christ, channel gibberish in fits of ecstasy, and you carry around wooden cross talismans as protection against vampires.

The Deuteronomy text is specific on what constitutes an ‘abomination’ in the eyes of the Lord: Divination, enchanter, witch, charmer, consulter with familiar spirits, wizard, NECROMANCER. There’s no disclaimer on conducting rites as a ‘mark of respect’ for a dead human being rather than a wandering garden deity. As long as you oblige your funeral hosts with the simplest of tasks like burning incense or folding pieces of paper, you’re deemed to be engaging in evil hocus-pocus and black magic, like you’re part of a seance communicating with dead punters for Toto numbers. By that argument, Christians are also forbidden from believing in fairy godmothers, or watching clowns perform magic in front of terminally ill children.

Christians are free to visit other places of worship, of course, as long as they don’t attempt to communicate with other spirits and look like they’re worshipping another invisible heavenly being. So there’s no ‘double standard’ to speak of. But it’s not just others’ religious rites that Christians condemn as cult behaviour. They may even be a wet blanket at wedding banquets. Christian forum writer Steve Ngo experienced one of a Chinese couple where it was forbidden to shout ‘YUM SENG’ because conservative Christians considered it ‘paganistic’. Even the 12 animals in the zodiac are not spared from accusations of occultism and idolatry. One Christian writer says it’s not right to even wish your loved ones ‘GONG XI FA CAI’. My God, can you guys even wish upon a star? Whether you’re Christian or not, we engage in little acts of ‘unholy’ divination every single day. We buy ‘lucky numbers’ at the pools, we refrain from lying on the bed of the dearly departed, we throw bouquets at bridesmaids in a wedding, we shake a pair of dice longer thinking we’ll get a better roll, we throw coins in a well, we seal a love letter with a kiss. If all these are signs of devil worship, then by all means, I’d rather be Satan’s little imp than an obedient servant of a nitpicky God. Life would be so boring without fantasy and ‘black magic’.

Refusing to abide by superstitious traditions, unlike what the title of the letter suggests, isn’t so much an act of impious rebellion (The author makes no mention of the words ‘filial piety’), than being a stickler to indoctrination.  Just making the effort to turn up or stand before the altar in silence is already a decent sign of respect and gratitude and no one has the right to force you to burn incence or follow a monk around a coffin if you don’t want to, for whatever silly arcane reasons. But if you look beyond these superficial rituals, you’d see such family activities not just as netherwordly appeasement, but they serve as a form of social bonding, and if it’s in your benefit to play along even if your religion labels it as sacrilegious, then indulge your relatives just for the moment.  If your God is the loving God that He claims he is, he’d understand your intentions. Of course most Chinese Christians don’t go so far as to rubbish the ‘Year of the Horse’ or refuse to wear red over CNY because it’s a sign of sucking up to Cai Shen Ye, a pagan magical troll in the eyes of the Lord, but if you’re the kind who thinks folding paper ingots is a satanic ritual, then you should be at least consistent in your beliefs, like, burning your Harry Potter books and banning your kids from watching the Wizard of Oz.

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Changi Airport CNY discounts for PRCs only

From ‘Airport’s insensitive sale promotion’, 16 Feb 2013, ST Forum

(Ben Ho): …I had checked in at Terminal 3 for a flight to Shanghai late last month. I stopped to buy some chocolates and was told by the cashier that travellers holding a Chinese passport would receive a 20 per cent discount. Being an ethnic Chinese but not from China, I was not entitled to the discount.

I thought that was the end of it, but when I was walking towards the boarding gate, I noticed large signs and brochures in front of the information counter that were only in Chinese. On them were Chinese New Year greetings as well as information on a variety of discounts and offers at all three terminals exclusively for Chinese passport holders. Many stores were participating in this promotion.

I am amazed at such an insensitive promotion, especially in a multicultural society. It is disrespectful to have all promotional materials in a language that is neither the national language nor the official first language. Having a promotion based solely on nationality is also an unacceptable snub to other tourists.

I lodged a complaint with Changi Airport’s public relations office and received a reply saying it “organises different promotions from time to time, targeting different customers”. The Christmas promotions were listed as an example. But those promotions were open to everyone, and all information on them was in English.

One can argue that it is only a marketing tactic. However, there are many ethnic Chinese who are not from China but also celebrate the Chinese New Year. It is unacceptable that one of the world’s top airports should give exclusive rights to people of a certain nationality.

A very Snaky deal

Changi Airport spokesperson Robin Goh explained in his apology that such promotions coincided with the peak travel period for Chinese nationals. Still, it’s like having a Christmas promotion only for people who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or a Valentine’s Day promotion targetting couples only. There’s a fine line between ‘targetted’ and ‘discriminatory’ selling. If I give free drinks to women based on the size of their boobs it is discrimination against the less endowed because D cup women are not necessarily bigger customers than A cup ones.  Here, it is the shameless, strategic targetting of rich PRC pockets first, though the use of the CNY festivities as an excuse for this entitlement does put the true meaning of the New Year in a god-awful light.

There were hints of this happening since last year. Knowing that PRCs made up a whopping 20% of sales at the airport, senior vice president of airside concession Ivy Wong acknowledged that Chinese nationals were a ‘very affluent group of people’, and revealed that the airport will be ‘rolling out programmes to tap on the spending behaviour‘ of Chinese nationals, shying away from details. So I looked up what ‘airside concession’ is all about. According to a recruitment website it is ‘supporting the implementation of policies and activities in retail planning and leasing, in order to continuously improve and enhance our Transit Malls’ retail mix’. The title suggests something more intimately linked with aircraft, like leasing hot dog stands on the runway. But no, you don’t even need to know how planes work to get the job. And ‘tapping on spending behaviour’ is simply getting people to part with their money i.e marketing, promotion, the works.

This isn’t the first preferential selling attempt by a prominent organisation. Last year, Starhub offered freebies worth $50 for ‘expats’ from select countries participating in the Euro cup finals. The company cleaned up their mess by extending the offer to all fans to make up for what they called ‘scoring an own goal’. Changi would do well to follow suit, given what little time we have left this festive season. How about giving everyone an Ang Pow when they shop at the airport? Hurry before offer ends on the last day of CNY!

Airports are no longer mere transport stations. Gone are the days of just sitting around reading the paper in the departure lounge with a cup of chalky coffee in your hand. Fashionista paradise aside, Changi has also become a hub for fancy lucky draws and jackpot games that entitle you to a shot at becoming an instant millionaire. In the 80’s, such gimmickry were questioned on their selection process and racial bias. Someone lamented that awards like the ‘4th million visitor to Singapore’ tend to be given to Caucasians rather than Asians.With all its promotional fanfare and bounty of giveaway riches, one tends to forget that they’re in a departure terminal, but rather the shopper’s equivalent of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where the boarding pass in your hand is your very own Golden Ticket.

In 2011, one Chinese businessman spent quarter of a million dollars on a botttle of whiskey at the airport, as part of a ‘Masters of Spirits’ promotion, an invitation-only showcase targetting true ‘connoisseurs’ and ‘collectors’ of the world’s most expensive booze. With such filthy-rich visitors walking around just waiting to snap on any bait you dangle before them, this CNY ‘targetted promotion’ was a simple matter of opportunistic greed. You only have so much time to snare a big customer before they catch a flight. I’m surprised Changi didn’t offer free tram rides for PRCs just to get them from one participating shop to another. It also doesn’t matter to the people at airside concessions if these same rich buggers start rioting and abusing your ground staff over flight delays. In fact, all the better so they have more time to, you know, buy whiskeys and stuff to drown their sorrows.

Cops vs Shoppers

Chinatown snake sculpture reminds people of death

From ‘Good designs are sensitive to cultural norms’, 19 Jan 2013, ST Forum

(Dr Tam Chen Hee): I READ with interest the report (“Chinatown snake sculptures may slither into S’pore record books”; Wednesday) on the negative feedback some Chinatown residents gave about snake decorations in the area.

One cardinal rule of good design is that the design must be in keeping, rather than in conflict, with the implicit norms and cultural understanding of the local community and/or habitat. Hence, some research and understanding of the local customs and heritage should have been done, and some thoughtful consideration exercised when deciding to introduce avant garde ideas (which are clearly to be welcomed but need to be sensitively and creatively tailored to the local context).

The students were trying to be creative, which is good, yet they also need to be taught to create sensitively and with care to local knowledge. This will serve them well when they design for overseas markets. The Chinese, even the Peranakans, avoid sharp edges (for instance, a round dining table is preferred) and indeed, the cubic lantern boxes in the snake sculpture (above right) do remind the older generation of Chinese of funereal objects.

Another lesson from this episode is that good designers should always look out for good examples by others. In the report, one student said that as the snake is symbolically ambiguous, unlike the dragon, it is harder to design decorations appropriate to it.

I saw one good snake design in Taiwan recently – snakes circling around pillars (showing movement and vitality) and looking skywards with their jaws open, spewing golden showers of coins for the new year or cherry blossoms for new growth. I hope the students have learnt something useful from this and take the well-intended criticism in their stride, so they can better themselves next time.

8-bit snake

8-bit snake

In an earlier feature on the potentially record-breaking snake design, the SUTD students were told by elderly folks that they didn’t like to have ‘snakes all over the place’. I wonder how they would feel if it weren’t the Year of the Snake but the RAT instead. Then again, you already see live rats any time of the year in Chinatown, not just during CNY. I’m no expert in art and crafts but the boxy sculpture looks like it was inspired by an 8-bit Nintendo game. Giving the snake a ‘pixellated’ look may nullify the primal fear we all have of a slithery mythological creature that has inspired centuries of dark villainy, sorcery and Samuel L Jackson swear words. But if you overdo it and give the fearsome Serpent a smiley face like the other hovering Chinatown snake, you risk having people mistaking it for an overgrown flying tadpole, or a happy Sperm deity. It’s a Chinese Zodiac icon, not a Japanese sex festival mascot. Even the resident Pokemon reptiles Ekans and Arbok look more terrifying than this.

La Mamba

I don’t know about the Taiwanese Snake, but it sounds like a rip-off of the Caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession. Entwining pillars may signify ‘movement and vitality’, but that’s also the way the reptile suffocates its prey. More like ‘torture and death’, especially if you’re at the receiving end of a snaky cuddle.

Not one to follow customs or shy away from taboos even though I’m a Snake Baby myself, I’m not sure if traditional Chinese refrain from sharp lines or using sharp objects only during auspicious festivities or run for the hills (not mountains, these have jagged edges) every single time we sit at a square jutting table as the writer suggests. In spring cleaning rituals, the use of sharp objects like scissors may ‘cut off’ your fortune. But I’m not aware if there’s a taboo over dining tables, boxes or HDTVs, though some Chinese may take offence towards PLANTS. In 2011, a pair of squabbling neighbours were deflecting bad luck off each other with curtain hooks and pointy leaf blades. Guess I should start checking on my neighbours’ flowers to make sure the thorns aren’t facing my doorway.  That explains the sharp pain in my skull every time I step out for work. I should also avoid walking behind people with earrings. Damn you plants and jewellery!

This fear of edges explains why wedding banquet tables are round but I haven’t seen any couple cut the cake with a truncheon (rather than a knife), signed off their marriage certs with thumbprints instead of pens, nor has anyone banished forks or bony fish from the dinner package. In fact, I don’t think one can even live without sharp edges or objects unless you live in a ballpit. As for lanterns, they have been used as skyborne vessels for well-wishes and good fortune too, not just to light up a trail for visiting spirits at a wake, something I’m sure the writer should know having visited Taiwan. But wait, maybe there IS one thing with sharp edges that every married adult should avoid during the New Year: ANG POWs. Those dreaded things can give you the most gruesome papercuts other than burning holes in your pocket and can be used in place of Ninja throwing stars. If this superstition is to be applied across the board I think we should do away not just with the scissors and other pokey things, but also over-crisp 2-dollar notes, red packets, expensive bak kwa, and give out coins, balloons and pineapple tarts instead.

The fishy origins of Yusheng

From ‘Food fight over yusheng’, 5 Feb 2012, article in Lifestyle, Sunday Times

The auspicious yusheng or raw fish salad is meant to bring harmony and unite people during Chinese New Year. But the popular festive dish has instead triggered a food fight in the media in Malaysia and Singapore.

For the past week, a controversy has been cooking in the Malaysian media with newspapers saying that the dish originated in Malaysia, not Singapore.

…Food consultant Violet Oon, 62, likens the current debate over the origins of the dish to similar debates in countries with a mixed culinary heritage.

She says: ‘Spaghetti is from Italy, but spaghetti and meatballs is an American tradition. Likewise in the United Kingdom, chicken tikka is found everywhere in Britain, but can they claim it’s theirs? Immigrants have come and made something different and there’s nothing wrong with that.’

Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng, who talked about yusheng in his recent column on Chinese New Year customs in the Chinese section of My Paper, says: ‘I don’t think Singapore needs to lay claim to yusheng. The dish has clearly evolved over the years, and even if it is made a local trademark, does it mean anything? What matters is that this custom is still practised and people love it.’

Can any one culture even ‘invent’ a dish and call it its own? What humans have been doing since the ‘invention’ of cooking is just mashing up variations of common raw ingredients which everyone else in the world uses in their cuisine. Nobody lumps some raw fish slices and shredded veggies together and announces to the world jubilantly that a discovery has been made as if a new subatomic particle had been created in a pan. Like the evolution of animal species, the history of food is peppered with incidences of ‘convergent evolution’, which explains why you can have similar foods across distinct cultures like satay and kebabs, spaghetti and noodles, pad thai and char kway teow, or yusheng and sashimi. One shouldn’t ignore the effect of INFLUENCE, which is the nicer alternative to ‘copying’, and because there are more people who prepare food for a living than Nobel-prize winning scientists, the chances of clashing recipes or methods of cooking are pretty high if you think about it.

In fact, one can’t even lay claim to salads containing raw fish and vegetables as a strictly Asian tradition. In Hawaii, a dish known as ‘poke’ consists of ‘a simple mixture of raw fish, Hawaiian salt, seaweed and chopped kukui nuts’. In Fiji, ‘Kokoda’ is ‘cubed fish steeped in lemon/lime juice then squeezed and garnished with onions, chillies, shallots, grated carrots, tomatoes and combined with thick coconut cream’. In Latin America, the birthplace of ‘ceviche’  has been disputed between Peru and Ecuador, when it’s likely that it was conceived by the ancient Incas who once ruled both lands, a similar situation faced by Singaporeans/Malaysians when it comes to yusheng, a dish agreed by both sides to have Canton origins, but diversified regionally into the several varieties  that we’ve come to ‘lo hei’ to death today.

Of course every place has its myths and legends on how its people have come to appreciate uncooked fish, which suggests that no single person or country discovered this independently. Who is to say our cavemen ancestors hadn’t thought of ‘prehistoric yusheng’ as well, when weather conditions weren’t conducive for a pit roast? Perhaps early man, without the benefit of fire, already feasted on a combination of raw fish slices, berries, herbs and roots out of expediency.  Who’s to say they didn’t involve their salad in rituals like we do today, praying for good harvests and weather instead of our rhythmic wishes for good fortune and success?

So let’s leave the petty quarrels behind and appreciate yusheng for what it means, and how it TASTES, to us today, as a fishy vessel for a messy, noisy ritual not just to mark ‘everybody’s birthday’, but a diplomatic icebreaker for foreigners and business partners over the New Year. Incidentally the pun surrounding yusheng is how ‘fish’ sounds similar to ‘excess’ in Chinese, and excessive is exactly what this fuss over ‘who invented yusheng first’ is.

Slapping on TV does not reflect reality

From ‘Love the show but not the slapping’, 28 Jan 2012, ST Forum

(Esther Wong): MY FAMILY and I enjoy watching Double Bonus on Channel 8 at 9pm from Monday to Friday.

However, the frequent slapping scenes are uncalled for and are very disturbing.

I hope the Channel 8 drama team can cut down on these scenes because they do not reflect reality and are likely to teach wrong family values, especially to young children who watch the drama serial.

Zoe gets it

If everyone were to disapprove of Channel 8 dramas ‘not reflecting reality’, the station would go bankrupt from lack of entertainment value, not that I’m a fan myself. Just look at the gung-ho action setpieces and bomb-in-a-dustbin hijinks in C.L.I.F. In fact, the trailer of Double Bonus itself (click pic above), with its cheesy recycled from the 80’s special effects,  dry-ice masquerading as celestial clouds, and the presence of two gorgeous Pan-Asian hunks, already says a lot about the gratuitous fantasy  in this serial without you having to watch a single episode. Like its name suggests, Double Bonus is your obligatory Chinese New Year drama special designed to promote family togetherness, with plenty of images of people eating at a table and doomed to climax to fever pitch with the entire cast breaking the third wall and wishing viewers long life and prosperity ahead and making you feel like hugging your Ah Gong right away. Long-time fans of local drama would remember CNY clones like ‘Prosperity‘, ‘Happy Family’, ‘Reunion Dinner’ and ‘Uncle, Where’s My Ang Pow?’. OK the last one was made up.

Times like these you can’t just bank on veterans like Zoe Tay or foreign eye candy anymore, which explains why scriptwriters, already running short of ideas other than cashing in on rape scenes, need to woo viewers with some good old fashioned family violence, something which Taiwanese family-spat marathon melodrama like ‘Ai’ is famous for. The Pan-Asians, the goofy costumes, the supernatural angle, are light-hearted elements just to suit the occasion and getting in the way  of what the folks at Channel 8 really aspire to produce: An all-out domestic slap-happy scandal-a-minute Armageddon. If you look at the trailer closely you’ll notice friendlier acts of violence like the ‘forehead push’, which could inadvertently cause as much harm as a whiplash in a car accident. Hugs and kisses just don’t do it for viewers anymore. We are instinctively attracted to domestic abuse like we rubberneck at car crashes, which is why slapping works. We like to see people ‘lose it’ as a vicarious, sadistic pleasure, and nothing serves up the tension like an impending slap to the face, especially after random objects like vases, plates and windows have been destroyed.

Slapping is probably unheard of in the writer’s sanitised window of the world, but to say slapping doesn’t reflect reality is like denying the existence of masturbation. Perhaps she should go out more often, chances are she may even catch a rare public slapping act in action. Teachers and supervisors of orphanages are known to punish by slapping, and I’m pretty sure some passionate couples still abuse each other in the heat of argument (and still make love after, perhaps with different forms of ‘slapping’). Ordinary citizens have been known to slap policemen, and so too women clashing over male lovers.  Google the definition ‘catfight’ and you’ll find ‘slapping’. Even today’s kids reverse the domestic order of discipline by giving a tight one to their mothers and boast online about it, like Adelyn Ho Seh Bo.

So, slapping, despite most people restraining themselves from delivering one to their spouses, bosses, MPs , other people’s annoying children or a kinky lover, is very REAL indeed. It’s the only bloodless physical act where one can feel so good after unleashing one, but wracked with guilt just a second later. How often do we vent ‘I feel like giving him a tight slap’ or ‘He deserves to be slapped’? In a way, the act of slapping is like learning what sex is. You have to see it with your own eyes or experience one yourself, and since slapping has been in existence since God knows when, it’s unfair to blame the media for taking the drama one slap too far, though one should deduct points for lack of imagination. The alternative to insulting a character in a show is to flame his Facebook account, but you don’t need TV for that do we.

PM Lee wants more Dragon babies

From PM Lee: Singapore’s fertility rate up last year, 22 Jan 2012, article by Judith Tan/Lydia Lim, Sunday Times

Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) picked up slightly last year to 1.20, up from a historic low of 1.15 in 2010. The Prime Minister announced the figure on Saturday in his Chinese New Year message, which focused on the central role of families as anchors for identity and sense of belonging, and sources of support in good times and bad.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong also said: ‘I fervently hope that this year will be a big Dragon year for babies.‘ Historically, Singapore enjoys a baby boom every Dragon year, which comes round every 12 years.

…Singapore’s TFR has been on a downward trend and is way below the replacement level of 2.1. It fell from 1.60 in 2000 to 1.20 last year, despite government measures to encourage couples to have more children. The TFR for Chinese Singaporeans is lower, falling from 1.43 to 1.08 over the same period.

Whether there’s a spike in Dragon babies born or not, the general trend is a fertility decline. 1988, two Dragon Years ago, saw a  high of 1.98, a figure that seems unattainable now unless someone flushes our reservoirs with  fertility drugs. Baby booms alone, of course, will not guarantee population growth over time, no matter how many baby-friendly packages are promised by the PM every CNY. It was recently revealed that an average 1000 Singaporeans pack their bags for greener pastures EVERY YEAR. Making Singapore family-friendly isn’t enough, you need to make baby-boomers happy enough to want to stay, or at least not kill themselves. Which means a total revamp of the educational, labour, political and leisure scene to keep citizens stimulated and proud to be Singaporean, not just expanding maternity wards or building more kindergartens.

Lee Kuan Yew kickstarted the CNY baby wish-list in the 80’s after the Dragon boom in 1988.  While encouraging couples to ignore the Zodiac, he also refuted the long-held belief that the Dragon year was auspicious for China’s Chinese at all, citing the great Tangshan earthquake in the last dragon year in 1976.

We should not decide the birth of our children by animal years. Have your babies in any year, including the Snake Year.

And if that year has less babies than Dragon Year, there will be the advantage of more places in good schools and at universities.

The latter statement was a catch that his son refused to elaborate on 24 years later, just as I suspected. But that was 1988, and even though we were just below the 2.1 replacement mark then, we could afford to temper the Dragon craze with a healthy  dose of reality.

Here’s a sample of PM’s baby urgings during CNY speeches over the years, and whether what he wished for actually came true.

2011 (Rabbit), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR increased by 0.05 to 1.20 :

I hope more couples will start or add to their families in the Year of the Rabbit. Chinese New Year is the time for families to come together in celebration, and more babies can mean only more joy in the years to come.

2010 (Tiger), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.23 to 1.15:

It is one thing to encourage ourselves with the traditional attributes of the zodiac animals…But it is another to cling on to superstitions against children born in the Year of the Tiger, who are really no different from children born under other animal signs.

2009 (Ox), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.28 to 1.23 (Official stats cite the latter TFR as 1.22)

Even in hard times, we should not neglect the need to bring up a new generation. If you remember, every time there was a recession, birth rates went down. But I hope this time we can buck the trend and keep the birth rate steady. We have implemented many measures to encourage marriage and help you in supporting and bringing up your children. There is also a lag time in procreation, so with luck your babies will arrive in time to enjoy the upswing.

2008(Rat), Lee Hsien Loong, TFR dropped from 1.29 to 1.28.

The government is studying the practical arrangements carefully, to see how we can create an even friendlier environment for having and raising children. We want Singapore to be a great place to bring up families and children.

Looking at his track record since 2008, it’s either PM Lee’s mild exhortations are falling on deaf ears, or the family initiatives are simply not working. To sum up, here’s the TFR trend since 2004:

1.24 (2004), 1.25 (2005), 1.26 (2006),  1.29 (2007), 1.28 (2008), 1.22 (2009), 1.15 (2010), 1.20 (2011)

Which suggests a slow positive creep of TFR up to the point of 2007-2008, when the recession hit, followed by a Tiger year double-whammy barely 2 years later. Meanwhile, the media continues to bombard us with fascinating who’s-who trivia of Dragon personalities, from Li Ka-Shing to Keanu Reeves, when they should have done the same for the Tiger year instead of perpetuating the bossy Tiger female stereotype. But is it truly a race effect? Let’s break it down.

In the 2010 Tiger year, the Chinese TFR hit 1.02, the Malays dipped rather dramatically to  1.65, while the Indians held steady at 1.13. Which means there was nothing special about the drop among the Chinese in 2009-2010 compared to the previous year ( a rate of -0.06); something else was amiss. In the last Dragon year in 2000, the reverse happened, but surprisingly not just for the Chinese. The other races seemed to respond to the Dragon’s roar as well, according to a ‘crude rate report’ charting birth rates from 1997 to 2006. But then it wasn’t just a Dragon year, it was the start of a new MILLENNIUM, and it would be interesting to see if any birth spike occurred 9 months post-Y2K.

Dragon spike for all 3 races

Only time will tell if 2012 breathes fire into the wombs of our women, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian. Meanwhile, the government should focus not just on generating babies or allowing the media to suggest that Dragon babies can grow up to become just like Professor X (Patrick Stewart), but retaining them when they grow older.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Overnight queueing for Lim Chee Guan Bak Kwa

From ‘S’poreans queueing overnight for bak kwa’, 15 Jan 2012, article in, translated from SM Daily

…Singaporeans are even queuing up through the night to get their bak kwa this time round. Well known bak kwa store Lim Chee Guan saw its stock sold out within 75 minutes of its opening at 9am this morning.

…The prices of bak kwa has also risen from $48 per kg yesterday to $50 per kg today.Each person was limited to buying 30kg yesterday, and the limit lowered to 20kg per person today.

Bak kwa prices are expected to rise further as Chinese New Year, the biggest day of the year for the Chinese, inches closer. One of those in the queue, Ms Chen, told reporters that she had taken a taxi from Hougang to New Bridge Road at about 6am to get the bak kwa. Together with five others, the group queued for four hours before they managed to buy their bak kwa.

The group planned to spend $6,000 to buy 120kg of bak kwa for their relatives and friends, and to give out to company employees. They had even arranged for vehicles to help carry the bak kwa back.

Many in the queue also appeared prepared for the long wait as some came with portable chairs while others were seen leisurely reading the papers. Reporters spoke to some folks in the queue, asking why they would spend so much time queuing for bak kwa. They explained that this is because the bak kwa here is delicious, and they get to feel the festive vibe by joining the queue.

More than a week to go to CNY and the price of Lim Chee Guan bak kwa has already escalated to $50/kg. Last year, according to KeropokMan’s blog, it hit $52/kg on Jan 30 at LCG Chinatown, and an anecdotal forum complaint in 2011 cited $54/kg at the LCG in Ion Orchard, both prices surpassing the ‘Big Five-O’ which bak kwa lovers  feared in 2008.  There’s even a Bak Kwa Index to monitor ‘sizzling’ prices over the days leading up to CNY. According to a 2007 report, LCG raised its price to $44 from $38 a month earlier, more than 2 weeks before CNY on Feb 18 that year. The 2007 $2 increase per week seems conservative in light of how the same rise occurred A DAY this CNY.

A writer to the ST called the bak kwa companies ‘oligopolistic’, and swore to avoid the fatty snack altogether. Such profiteering was apparent in the early 2000’s, when $48/kg bak kwa was already in existence. But what’s curious about the CNY-bak kwa phenomenon is despite the hike, or BECAUSE of it, the queues have taken on similar characteristics to the HnM line last year; overnight camping and bak kwa lovers treating what appears to me is a sheer waste of time as some kind of ‘occasion’. 6 to 8 hour queues were unheard of when people first began jacking up the prices, and counter-intuitively, the higher the price per kg, the longer the wait. I’d rather spend the time spring cleaning my kitchen fridge, cabinets and all windows in my house.

Even more puzzling is how bak kwa can be taken for granted when it’s readily available throughout the year, when other seasonal goodies like pineapple tarts and love letters fail to take on the allure of scarcity to justify a price increase. A common argument is that prices of pork and oil have increased, but hasn’t everything else? Like flour, eggs, pineapples? The economics of bak kwa price hikes aside, there could be other human factors behind the absurd success of bak kwa, that people are willing to wait for ages and fork out such money for a few slices of dried BBQ meat, which in the Western context, is something you can prepare at home by simply plonking pork jerky over a weekend grill.

Surprisingly, it’s not so much the actual TASTE of Lim Chee Guan’s meat that draws the crowds. In a 2009 blind taste test, Lim Chee Guan was rated similarly to Bee Cheng Hiang, though both were chosen as top picks. BCH, of course, is the Sakae Sushi of bak kwa. I might as well buy a lot of bak kwa from the nearest mall, remove the packaging, trick my guests with a miserable tale of how I queued in the rain for 6 hours in Chinatown, and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. In fact, even if they COULD tell the difference (which would rank them above the experts), they wouldn’t dispute and embarrass their host in the spirit of CNY. Perhaps the brand name helps too, since naming a bak kwa company after an actual person has a ring of authenticity to it, bringing to mind images of its founder (who happens to be NOT called Lim Chee Guan) sweating over the flames, stoking his moist, sweet hand-cut meats to crispy perfection.

What about  auspiciousness then? According to food guru K.F Seetoh, bak kwa is ‘long yoke’ in Cantonese, which means a ‘robust fortune ahead’, though true only for bak kwa sellers rather than those eating it  (more like robust ‘myocardial infarction risk’ ahead). Steeped in tradition and a ‘die-die-must-have’ staple aside, I’m hazarding a theory that it’s not the taste, or the ‘meaning’ behind bak kwa that drives people to camp overnight for what’s possibly the unhealthiest, most carcingogenic containing CNY goodie of all. Buying bak kwa is a gesture to show how much you’re willing to splurge and sacrifice for your guests, and the more expensive it gets, the longer the wait, the more generous and altruistic it makes you look, no matter how it ends up tasting like marinated cardboard.  Nothing scores more points than a gift of expensive bak kwa to your boss, or a prospective parent-in-law. It also helps that queuing happens to be a Singaporean pasttime, which pretty much explains everything.

Dragon babies are ‘incapable of hypocricy’

From ‘Enter the dragon babies’, article by Judith Tan, 8 Jan 2012, Sunday Times

Claris Ong and Alexandra Chin, both 11 years old, are ‘Dragon babies’….The girls are outstanding by virtue of being very driven and independent – both qualities true to the nature of those born under that Chinese zodiac sign.

…Since ancient times, the Chinese have always thought a ‘Dragon child’ would bring luck to the family. This is because dragons symbolise traits such as dominance and ambition. According to geomancers, ‘Dragon children’ prefer to live by their own rules and, if left to their own devices, are usually successful.

They are also said to be passionate, driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. But this same passion and enthusiasm can also leave ‘Dragons’ feeling exhausted and even unfulfilled. On the plus side, they are said to be sincere and incapable of hypocrisy. They can also be very persuasive, with an ability to wear down resistance through their intuitive and diplomatic nature. But they are also known to be very sensitive, sometimes cutting and stubborn, or even wilful and vindictive.

…The last Dragon Year in 2000 saw more than 46,000 births – up from an average 42,000 live births in 1999 and 2001. And in 1988, there were 52,957 babies born here, compared with 43,616 in 1987 and 47,669 in 1989.

There’s little tolerance  for science and logic when it comes to grounded tradition and mythology. It’s unlikely that people born in the Year of the Dragon are necessarily more successful or driven than people born in any other year, and anyone embarking on such a study would face a daunting task, not to mention suffer brickbats from geomancers whose very livelihood depends on telling Dragon baby parents what they’d love to hear. Of course any birth spike is music to our government’s ears, even if this was borne out of unrealistic expectations resulting in increased competition from maternity beds to nursery, school and job placings. It would help if Dragon baby parents were Dragons themselves to give their kids a headstart, assuming that all the character traits are true. So even if by celestial order Dragon babies are genetically programmed to lead by example and boss other zodiac animals around, the environmental pressure would put the NURTURE element of the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument to the ultimate test.

The opposite to the Dragon Baby boom effect is the Year of the Tiger, which saw dips in births over the past 3 Tiger years.  Which is strange since the attributes that lead to a Tiger baby’s success are similar to those of a Dragon. It’s also sexist to think less favourably of a Tiger woman, stereotyped as being fierce and wilful, than a Tiger Man, who’s courageous and dominating and would have been indistinguishable from the stereotype of his Dragon counterpart. Marriages are also down during Tiger years, and with our already dismal fertility rate, the last thing we’ll need is horoscope predictions turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. Our PM (A dragon himself) made a plea to parents to act normal during the inauspicious Tiger year in 2010, and not ‘cling on to superstitions’, but will probably remain silent about the exaggerated faith placed on Dragon children this CNY, no thanks to ST celebrating living proof of clever Dragon children and enticing gullible couples to rush headlong into marriage or birth without considering more practical issues like whether they have a roof over their head or not.

If you read horoscopes closely, you’ll realise how inconsistent and vague their personality attributes are, and often you’d find a bit of yourself in every zodiac animal, though we’re usually not interested in what other horoscopes have to say. It’s a classic mind-reading trick, relying on our tendency to agree furiously with one thing that speaks true of ourselves and forgetting about the others that don’t. In the 1950’s, a Dragon was considered ‘benevolent and lovable‘ and it would be a blessing to marry one. Today’s dragons can be too sensitive, wilful or even vindictive, though it doesn’t really matter if the shortcomings of a dragon change from one era to another. It’s still a DRAGON after all, worshipped to demigod status by Emperors of centuries past.

If you’re aiming to debunk such superstitious hokum, the first parameter that you may want to examine is how many gifted leaders out there actually belong to the Dragon cohort, in proportion to all other animals in the zodiac. Using this helpful Wiki on Dragon birthdates, I carried out a premonitory survey of my own, using prominent Chinese Singaporean figures (politicians mainly) as a very narrow gauge of what we define as success:

Past and president PMs, presidents

  • LEE HSIEN LOONG, PM of SINGAPORE (10 Feb 1952, WATER dragon). Even his name has a dragon character in it, adding to the divine mystique of his auspicious birth. Incidentally his father Lee Kuan Yew, born in Sept 1923 (PIG), wasn’t. Tony Tan Keng Yam, the current president of Singapore, missed the Dragon year by a SINGLE DAY (7 Feb 1940). Neither are Goh Chok Tong (1941, SNAKE), Ong Teng Cheong (1936) or Wee Kim Wee (1915).

Past and present ministers/MPs/politicians

  • KHAW BOON WAN, National Development Minister (8 Dec 1952), TAN CHENG BOCK, ex MP and presidential candidate (26 April 1940). But not George Yeo (1954), DPM Teo Chee Hean (1954),  Chee Soon Juan (1962), Tan Jee Say (1954), WP MP Chen Show Mao (1961) or Wong Kan Seng (1946).

Past and present women ministers/MPs/politicians

  • GRACE FU, Senior Minister of State (29 March 1964, WOOD dragon) This dragon lady  has been heckled recently for her comments on ministerial pay cuts. Firebrand Nicole Seah of NSP (1986) isn’t one, nor is Tin Pei Ling (1983), Lee Bee Wah (1960), late wife of LKY Kwa Gek Choo (1920), WP MP Sylvia Lim, or prolific author and critic Catherine Lim (1942).


  • KHOO TECK PUAT (13 Jan 1917)
  • NG TENG FONG (Unconfirmed, but he was born in  1928, a dragon year)

Miscellaneous celebrities who make unlikely dragons

  • STEVEN LIM, eyebrow stylist, dancer, all round entertainer (30 Aug 1976, FIRE DRAGON) and HENRY ‘ALAMAK’ THIA (25 Feb 1952, same birthday month as PM Lee).

Without going into formal statistics I think it’s quite fair to say that there’s nothing special about Dragon babies and any Dragon baby that emerges as the leader of a generation or a multi-billionaire is pure coincidence and any success alluded to one’s date of birth suffers from post-hoc fallacious reasoning, conveniently ignoring all the other little dragons who fail to live up to their parent’s expectations, as well as other factors accounting for one’s fortune. Of course if a dragon happens to fail miserably in life or becomes a YouTube laughing stock, then feng shui masters would put the blame on the actual DATE of birth, if not the time you emerged from your mother’s womb down to the millisecond.

It’s worth exploring, however, if the very selective pressure of dealing with the dragon baby boomers in school or work is itself a factor in driving dragons to excel, not so much because they’re born in a certain way, but because of a consequence of a belief in them performing in a certain way. Note that among all the zodiac animals, the Dragon is the only one that exists only as a figment of our imagination. The media getting all pumped up celebrating brilliant children who SO HAPPEN to be Dragon babies is perpetuating a deep-seated symptom of magical thinking, just like the magical creature behind it. You won’t see the same coverage for RAT babies, that’s for sure.

Postscript: It turns out that there has been a misconception of what makes a Dragon baby. According to a 29 Jan 2012 Sunday Times article, you’re not a Dragon baby this year until the ‘Li Chun’, or start of Spring festival, on Feb 4. AT 1824 HOURS. Which means there are people who’ve been associated with dragons, embellished with all the positive traits of dragons, but are actually RABBITS. This, of course, simply disproves the myth of zodiac signs influencing character.  Also thanks to ‘CY’ for pointing out that Tony Tan is in fact a dragon.

River Hongbao stall signs all in Chinese

From ‘Lost at River Hongbao’, 11 Feb 2011, ST Forum online. Thanks to auntielucia.

(Kunwar Bir Singh): ON SUNDAY evening, I took my family to the River Hongbao carnival to understand and get to know more of the country I am trying to embrace as my permanent home.

We enjoyed it a lot and were really impressed by the decorations, atmosphere, cultural programme and fun rides for the children.

But amid all the fun and extravaganza, I felt a little out of place. Most of the signs in the food stalls and the price lists were in Chinese. I wanted to try the food but did not know what to ask for as I do not eat pork and beef for religious reasons. Even the compering was exclusively in Mandarin. I felt like an outsider, not welcome to join in the festivities.

I understand that the festivities are to commemorate the Chinese New Year, but in cosmopolitan Singapore, where people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds live together harmoniously, a little sprinkling of English can go a long way.

Bilingual compering in English and Mandarin, and names of food items and price lists in English would have made us feel more at home, more comfortable and truly integrated.

It’s strange how someone eager to ‘know more of the country he’s trying to embrace’ expects a traditional Chinese festival to cater to minorities like himself by making everything bilingual, at the expense of it losing its flavour and authenticity. It’s like going to a Kabuki play and demanding subtitles, or attending a Buddhist wake and wondering why the monks aren’t chanting for the dearly departed in English. Without the thrill of the unfamiliar and exotic, a festival corrupted by a commercial eagerness to please foreigners will be nothing short of forgettable, a postcard cliche like caricaturists on a scenic boardwalk, sailor caps on Star cruises or Merlion souveniers at the Esplanade. Where’s your sense of adventure, or more importantly the curiosity and common sense to ask your future fellow Singaporeans for help? The first step to integrating, Mr Singh, is not shooting a complaint letter to the press about how River Hongbao alienates non-Chinese folk, but to show some basic humility and approaching locals for simple favours instead of agonising over pork or beef-looking meat and going hungry over it. We, cosmopolitan as we are, do speak a smattering of English…FYI, and to call tweaking existing customs solely for your convenience an act of ‘integration’ is like describing the act of curry diners  diluting their spices for ang mors ‘excellent customer service’.

Tip to River Hongbao organisers to prevent guileless foreigners from complaining next time: In order to make our immigrants feel more at home, send them a welcome hamper and handcrafted invitation card (in Chinese AND English),  assign a tour guide cum translator to help them order food and show them where the toilets are, and have the God of Fortune bless them with oranges, hongbaos (I mean red packets) and orchid necklaces with a fanfare of cymbals, drums and a prancing lion for good measure. Similar fuss over lack of bilingualism in art here.

Big headed dolls too creepy

From ‘勿洛小贩中心大头娃贺年 公众:毛骨悚然’, 5 Feb 2011, article in (LHWB)




Dolled up for CNY

Translation: Patrons at a Bedok Hawker centre are creeped out by ‘big head dolls’ set up to bring festive cheer, complaining that these are more suited for the Seventh Month celebrations instead of the Lunar New Year.

Well, blame the Chucky franchise for turning what were once objects of affection into pagan idols for devil worship. Creepiness aside, it just seems awkward to hang these things from a ceiling, what with those intensely scary peepers staring down at you while you eat your bak chor mee. Just those red and yellow pineapples would do really, but to complain about dolls looming over you on the first few days of the New Year instead of spending meaningful moments with family is as absurd as queuing up for hours for bak kwa which you could otherwise get easily (and cheaply)  on every other day of the year. We don’t see evil dolls lurking around even during the seventh month, where the real spine tingling action usually happens on the getai stage itself. If they’re not frightening little children and damning all luck and prosperity to hell at hawker centres, they’re getting parents agitated for being too sexy as well.


Gong Xi Fa ZAI (kill)!!


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