January 1999

Quietly, quietly, with cymbals and drums




January first, 1999. The night before, I had a late night, a very late night. I crawled into bed around dawn. It had drizzled all day on the 31st, and rained steadily through the night. When I went to bed, it was pleasantly cool and breezy, and there was no need for the airconditioner. I left the windows open.

A mistake. Through the open windows, the cymbals and drums of a lion dance troupe boomed and clanged into my room, at precisely the point in my sleep when I was farthest removed from time and place.

Hmmmph? What's happening? What day is this?

As I lay in bed, body still asleep, mind prematurely roused, this essay came together. I was being assaulted by culture change!

Business enterprises often call upon a lion dance troupe to perform at the commencement of something important. It's a Chinese tradition. (There used to be firecrackers too, but they're banned by the Singapore government as a hazard to the public. So much for tradition.) You find a lion dance performed when a new branch or shop is opened. You see lots of them in the days following Chinese New Year, when shops and factories re-open for business after the holidays. The businessmen want to make sure they give an auspicious start to the new trading period.

But traditionally, there should be nothing significant, nothing Chinese, about the first day of January. It's the start of the western year, not the Chinese year, and most shops remain open. However, some of the shopkeepers in my area now seem to have decided they would play safe and have the lions come by on January 1st to grace the new calendar too. Maybe it's the economic recession; the business needs all the help it can get.

Be that as it may, it was still a ruckus I have to put up with... and another incremental change to culture in Singapore. I doubt if it's entirely new. It probably didn't just appear in 1999, but may have occurred in recent years too, except that I might not have taken note of it. These habits steal in ever so quietly -- pretty difficult, you might think, with cymbals and drums, but there you are!

Early in 1998, during Chinese New Year, I noticed something new as well. I was walking past some shops in my neighbourhood, who were that day just re-opening for business. A lion dance troupe was performing in front of them, making as much noise as they can humanly muster. This would have pleased the shopowners. The Chinese believe that the more noise you make, the further you chase away the evil spirits. It's a shame they banned firecrackers -- now that would have scared them away!

Something about that troupe caught my eye. Half the boys (yes, lion dancers are usually males 15 to 25) were Malays. They were dressed in the traditional Chinese acrobatic costumes. With their drums and cymbals, they had the rhythms exactly like any other Chinese dance troupe. They were enjoying themselves and knew their roles well -- and, I'm sure, were looking forward to collecting lots of hongbaos -- but one glance at their faces, and you can't be in any doubt about their race.

It was something that I had never seen before, though with a few seconds of reflection, I had seen something similar in Thailand. With a Chinese minority in that country, they have a noticeable Chinese New Year too, with lion and dragon dance troupes going from shop to shop as they re-open for business. Many of their dancers look more like ethnic Thais than minority Chinese, though in Thailand, the distinction in facial features is not always clear. Can any reader from Thailand confirm this? Are the lion dancers all ethnic Chinese, or do they include ethnic Thais? What about the situation in Vietnam, Indonesia or the Philippines?

Singapore is different from her neighbours in one important respect. Here, the Chinese are in the majority, and they don't have a shortage of young men or boys from their own community to join the troupes. They've never had to rely on manpower from outside the community. Moreover, the racial divide in Singapore has, at least in the past, been quite rigid. The Malays, virtually all of whom being Muslims, are not known for participating in Chinese cultural events, except at the personal level such as attending weddings or (occasionally) visiting friends during Chinese New Year. Language and food are the biggest barriers. So, to see those Malay teenagers at Chinese New Year performing the lion dance for Chinese shopkeepers was very unusual. But it was also very gladdening for someone who believes strongly in a non-racial Singapore.

* * * * * * * * * *

Islam requires its adherents to observe a fasting month every year. For the month of Ramadan, able-bodied Muslims should refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours.

With very few exceptions, all Malays in Singapore are Muslims. But a not inconsequential number of them do not fast. I doubt if anybody has statistics on this, because it is a very sensitive subject. But walk around in the day and you can see all the evidence. Just a week ago, there were three of them at the table next to mine, in a coffeeshop. When they came into the place, they were still debating whether to go to the next coffeeshop which had stalls selling Indian and Malay food. Normally, that would be more to their taste. The coffeeshop where I was had just one Malay stall, which, at that hour, was closed. All the other stalls were Chinese. The three guys decided to stay in the Chinese coffeeshop. If they were going to defy the fast, it was easier to stick around the Chinese, who wouldn't give a damn, than to do it within sight of Malay stallholders over there. So they stayed and ordered prawn noodles and chicken rice. Not only were they not fasting, they were tucking into non-halal food.

Muslims in Singapore are free to observe or not observe their religion as they please. In Malaysia, they'd have to keep an eye out for the religious police.

Without getting into a debate about whether they were right or wrong to defy their religion, the above two anecdotes, about Malay lion dancers and Malays not fasting, illustrate something about cultural change. It is that the starting condition is often the availability of options. If the troupe had not, for whatever reason, needed the Malay youths and invited them to participate, what I saw wouldn't have happened. If the 3 guys did not have Chinese coffeeshops to rely on, it would be more difficult to eat during Ramadan days.

When options open up to people, some adventurous souls will try them out. And then, depending on whether they like what they have tried, the practice may persist and spread, or fizzle out. If the former, then cultural change has taken place.

It's still a minority of the Malays who do not fast. Some Malays are very devout. They go to the mosque regularly. If you stand outside a mosque on a Friday evening, you'll see hundreds streaming in and out. Immediately, another interesting thing will hit you. Many of the men will be wearing the songkok (headcap), sarong, Malay baju (shirt) and Malay slippers, things you wouldn't see them wear on almost any other daily occasion. For non-religious activities, they have dropped the traditional attire. Well, it's more convenient, you say. True, but that's still cultural change.

The Chinese never wear traditional costumes, unless they are out to bag the best-dressed prize at a costume party. When did they drop China dress? The men probably switched early in the 20th century. We see Chinese tunics on men only in 100-year-old sepia-toned photographs. Some women were still wearing samfoos up till around the 1960's or 70's, but today, you'd be hard put to spot a woman wearing one. And what happened to chakjiaks, the wooden clogs?

Well, occasionally, you may still see a hawker wearing a pair, particularly at the suburban hawker centres. In the downtown food courts, the stallholders are more likely to wear Nike athletic shoes.

The food courts are fascinating places too. Nowadays, you see Japanese food among the stalls. To me, that is one more example of change.

Twenty to thirty years ago, you could not get Japanese food except in pricey restaurants catering to Japanese expatriates. Most Singaporeans found it too expensive, too exotic, and oh yes, too raw. As more restaurants opened, competition compelled lower prices. The middle class began to peek into these places and sample the stuff -- another example of options opening up to people. Gradually they acquired the taste for it. Today, get any 10 Chinese Singaporeans together and the odd one out is the one who doesn't lurv sashimi.

Another pattern about cultural change is that preferences (and fads) that begin at the top of the social pyramid tend to percolate down the social strata. For those in the lower strata, there is aspirational value in trying to emulate those one or two rungs above them. There are also the dynamics of the market. Competition forces outlets to broaden their customer base. Instead of targetting the elite, they have to target the masses. Meanwhile, resourceful assistant chefs from Japanese restaurants get fed-up with their bosses and strike out on their own, perhaps opening a Japanese takeaway, or a stall at a foodcourt.

Watch what is happening. Quietly, quietly, oyakodon, katsudon, yakitori, unagi sushi and others are becoming part of our hawkerstall mix, becoming as much part of our Singapore culture as ice-cream, bread, tomyam soup and burgers -- all cultural imports once upon a time.

Yawning Bread